Explorations of Disability Through Manga: Rie Aruga’s Perfect World

The portrayal of people with disabilities in popular media is a complex and often controversial subject. While a historic lack of representation has led to an intense desire among disabled readers for the inclusion of characters whose experiences they can relate to, fictional portrayals of disabled characters tend to be plagued by problematic tropes. Infantilising portrayals of adults with disabilities, reducing them to the passive object of another (able-bodied, neurotypical) character’s care, is a particularly common issue. Little visibility is allotted to the portrayal of the romantic, work and sex lives of disabled adults. And this in turn reflects a wider, societal lack of recognition of the existence of disabled people within the public space.

Despite around 4.3% of the Japanese population having some form of physical or mental disability, the presence of disabled characters is starkly absent in one of Japan’s most highly consumed forms of media: manga. Manga – or ‘comics’ – make up roughly 40% of purchased reading materials in Japan. One of the most popular ways of consuming manga is through monthly manga-magazines, encompassing a variety of genres and aimed at a wide range of ages.

Manga store interior, photo taken by myself

Featuring a set number of works by different artists at a time, the continued serialisation of a manga within a specific magazine is reliant on its popularity, with series that rank poorly in reader popularity polls risking cancelation. Additionally, manga by first-time artists are often only green-lit for full serialisation depending on how positively an initial ‘one-shot’ chapter of a planned work in received by readers. In other words, what kind of manga is and isn’t published depends almost entirely on the immediate interest of its wider audience, and it is perhaps for this reason that series featuring characters from traditionally marginalised groups – such as those with disabilities – often struggle to receive publication.

But it is perhaps because of the difficulty getting works featuring disabled protagonists published that when it does happen it is all the more impactful. Originally serialised in Kondasha’s josei (‘women’s) magazine Kiss from 2014 to 2021, Rie Aruga’s Perfect World is one of the few Japanese manga to place a disabled character in the centre of a romantic serial aimed at adult women.

The protagonist of Perfect World is 26-year old Tsugumi, who is unexpectedly reunited with her high school crush Itsuki, only to discover that he has since been paralysed by a spinal cord injury. Brought together through their work in an architecture firm, their rekindled friendship rapidly blooms into a romantic relationship. Over the manga’s 12 volume run we follow the dramatic ups and downs of Tsugumi and Itsuki’s relationship as they fall in love, break up and come back together before eventually marrying and having a child. It contains all the usual melodrama you expect to see in a typical josei romance, but framed in the rarer context of a relationship between an able-bodied woman and a physically disabled man.

While Perfect World is highly important for its sensitive exploration of the issues surrounding dating and relationships as a physically disabled person, its format as a graphic novel is also incredibly valuable in its ability to explore the lived experiences of disabled people in visceral way that disabled readers can relate to and able-bodied audiences can readily understand. Firstly, the visual format of manga allows the artist to switch seamlessly between the perspectives of Tsugumi and Itsuki – sometimes within a single frame – in a way that would feel jarring and unnatural in other mediums. This blending of perspectives allows both characters equal agency within the plot, even while the former technically remains the protagonist. As a result, Itsuki avoids becoming objectified within the plot as the passive object of its able-bodied protagonist’s narrative, a common pitfall in depictions of disabled characters.

The largely visual nature of manga also allows the author to depict visually the experiences of its characters in a deeply emotive manner that has a profound and memorable impact on the reader. A running theme discussed throughout Perfect World is the lack of physical accessibility granted to wheelchair users in Japan. In one particularly impactful scene we see Itsuki flash back to the first time he ventured into the city alone after becoming paralysed. Framed within a single panel, the illustration of Itsuki sat alone and unnoticed among a busy crowd manages to convey a sense of claustrophobia and alienation that would be difficult to achieve through written dialogue alone.

Perfect World is not the only disability-related manga to be serialised in recent years, but it is a notable example and one that illustrates the unique strengths of manga to depict and explore themes of disability in an empathetic and engaging manner. It is an example that also highlights the fact that, despite their rarity, such works are capable of becoming immensely popular. Having begun life as a single stand-alone chapter, Perfect World would be successful enough among its young, female audience to be serialised for a total of seven years, during which time it was also adapted as a live action movie. It has proved that there is a market for manga featuring disabled characters, and with the series concluding its serialisation earlier this year, it will be interesting to see what other, similar works may follow in its stead.

Perfect World is published in English by Kondasha USA. To purchase volumes and find out more about the series, please visit their website.

Third Thursday Lectures – Hokusai’s Illustrations for The Great Picture Book of Everything

For the Sainsbury Institute’s final Third Thursday Lecture of 2021 assorted students, academics and members of the public gathered online to listen to a talk by Dr Alfred Haft, curator of the new The Great Picture Book of Everything exhibition currently open at the British Museum. I detailed my own visit to the exhibition in a recent blog post, but this lecture proved a wonderful opportunity to take a deep dive in to the exhibition through the expert knowledge of its curator.

The work of celebrated ukiyo-e artist Katsushika Hokusai (1760 – 1849) the 103 separate artworks that comprise The Great Picture Book were purchased by the British Museum from a Paris auction in 2019. As explained by Dr Haft, the survival of these beautifully intricate drawings is owed to the fact that this work was ultimately never published, and as a result they were not destroyed as part of the woodblock making process which would have been used to reproduce them. And while the decision not to publish The Great Picture Book may have left its existence unknown for centuries, its unexpected emergence sheds tantalising light on to the later years of the intriguing and famously cantankerous artist.

Illustration made by Hokusai while working as an apprentice (Artwork by Katsushika Hokusai, photograph taken by myself at the British Museum).

Beginning by recounting Hokusai’s lifetime, Dr Haft touched upon not only the details of Hokusai’s various apprenticeships under established artists as a young man, but also the tragic loss of his youngest daughter and wife in his later life. This was a personal touch that was quite moving, enabling the audience to get a sense of Hokusai the man, not just the artist.

Dr Haft’s artistic analysis of selected pages of The Great Picture Book was also highly engaging. For those who have not yet had a chance to see them in person, it is important to emphasize how incredibly tiny these illustrations are. Barely the size of a postcard, the sheer level of detail that has been put into these sketches is simply astounding. In one especially charming example, a painstaking use of linework has been used to suggest differing textures of feathers in a sketch of a duck so small ‘it could rest comfortably in a soupspoon’.

Image of birds analysed in Dr Hafts lecture, the duck in question can be found in the bottom centre. (Artwork by Katsushika Hokusai, photo taken by myself at the British Museum)

The Great Picture Book of Everything is in essence a testament to the mastery of Katsushika Hokusai, and a collection of works that we are very lucky to still have intact. Dr Haft’s talk served as a fantastic introduction to the exhibition for those who have yet to visit, and for those of us who have a wonderful companion talk to explore the history of Hokusai just that little bit further.

To find out more and buy tickets to The Great Picture Book of Everything exhibition at the British Museum, please visit the exhibition’s webpage. And if you would like to read my own personal review of the exhibition, the relevant blog post can be found here.

For more information about the Sainsbury Institute and their Third Thursday Lecture series, please visit their website.

CJS Webinars – Missing the Point: The Art of Translating with Mishima Yukio

This Thursday we were invited to join another CJS online seminar, this week with professor of Japanese literature and professional translator Stephen Dodd. While he has produced much academic writing on the topic of Japanese literature during his career, he has also translated two novels by post-war author Mishima Yukio, and it was these translation projects which were the topic of his seminar.

Born in the 1920s Mishima Yukio was, if nothing else, a character. His (tragically short) life would involve stints as not only an author but also as a model, an avid Shintoist, a (in Professor Dodd’s words ‘rather ham’) actor and a far-right nationalist. He is also widely believed to have been one of Japanese literature’s earliest and most prominent gay authors, although his possible bisexuality was something that his wife Mishima Yoko would strenuously deny after his death.

But regardless of the arguments surrounding his sexuality, Mishima Yukio’s 1949 novel Confessions of a Mask remains incredibly important in its portrayal of the secret inner life of a gay man growing up against the backdrop of imperial Japan. And it was this poignant portrayal that first drew Professor Dodd’s to Mishima Yukio’s literary works, and would ultimately motivate to him to translate two of his other novels; Life for Sale (published in 2021), and Beautiful Star (due for publication in early 2022).

It is always interesting hearing guest speakers talk about how it was they came to be interested in a specific object of study or line of work, and Professor Dodd’s passion for the life and works of Mishima Yukio really was very palpable. But despite his academic and personal interest in the author, I found it very admirable that Professor Dodd openly admitted that while some aspects of the man fascinated him, other parts of his character he found ‘repulsive’. His far-right leanings, as Professor Dodd pointed out, were at a stark contrast with his (likely) status as a gay man in post-war Japan, and many of his extreme political views today feel more than a little alarming.  

Professor Dodd also related the issue of Mishima Yukio’s questionable political leanings to one very important issue translators must keep in mind when translating post-war Japanese literature. And that is the fact that post-war Japanese fiction is, in its very nature, inherently political, typically downplaying Japan’s role in the war or expressing political views which could otherwise offend international readers. And partly because of this there remains, as Professor Dodd acknowledges, ‘a politics of what is chosen to be translated’ when it comes to the genre.

But should we, as English speaking readers, only translate the post-war writings of authors whose political outlooks align with our own? Or is there in fact value to be found in translating and consuming the works of authors whose political views, while uncomfortable, provide an honest insight into the mindset of writers in post-war Japan? That is the question I have been pondering ever since this seminar, and will likely continue to dwell on for some time.

Hokusai: The Great Picture Book of Everything – The Master Arrives at the British Museum

This week I was lucky enough to start off on an exciting note with a guided tour of the British Museum’s new exhibition, Hokusai: The Great Picture Book of Everything. Studying an MA in Interdisciplinary Japanese Studies with the Sainsbury Institute for the Study of Japanese Arts and Cultures certainly has its perks, and this chance to view the exhibition for free and speak with the Exhibitions curator, Dr Alfred Haft, is an opportunity I have greatly appreciated.

One of the few remaining original prints of The Great Wave, Hokusai’s most famous work

Katsushika Hokusai was a Japanese artist who lived between 1760 and 1849. A historically renowned master of ukiyo-e, a type of woodblock prints, his expansive catalogue of works remain one of the most culturally significant in the world of art. And this catalogue of works has expanded very recently, with the discovery of a collection of 103 separate drawings attributed to Hokusai coming to light in 2019. Belonging to an unpublished work titled ‘The Great Picture Book of Everything’, through the efforts of Dr Haft and the British Museum these images have now been catalogued online and also put out on public display.

The box which once housed the collected drawings of The Great Picture Book

Dr Haft and the other staff involved in creating this exhibition have been incredibly successful in structuring it in a way that really urges visitors to slow down and contemplate the art on show in a leisurely manner. The simple but eye catching colour scheme of sheer white and deep blue draws your eye to smaller displays of art implements and sketchbooks, while the walls of the exhibition space are lined with the tiny, individual pages of The Great Picture Book of Everything.

Page from an picture book attributed to one of Hokusai’s apprentices

I must say that I was truly blown away by the level of detail that could be seen in these tiny, fragile pages, smaller than even the average book-page today. Looking at the texture of the hair in one particular sketch I could almost feel its softness while gazing at the individual, delicate curls that had been painstakingly drawn by Hokusai, who, it is worth noting, would have been at least in his 60s at the time. There’s something incredibly intimate about seeing such a tiny drawing close up, and being inches away from something that so legendary an artist would have physically drawn himself.

The goddess Nüwa receives precious stones to repair the pillars that separate heaven and earth by Katsushika Hokusai

Because what makes this collection so remarkable is that most of the works that still exist today would not, physically, have been drawn or painted by Hokusai. Rather, they are printed iterations of works that Hokusai himself once sketched, with the originals destroyed as part of the woodblock printing process. As such, it is the fact that these pages were never published which has ultimately saved them. Why The Great Book of Everything was never published is a question we can only speculate, but it was a decision which has left behind a beautiful – and exceedingly precious – collection of images created by Hokusai’s own hand, to now be preserved in posterity for future generations.

To find out more and book tickets, please visit the British Museum website.

(All photographs featured were taken by myself.)

Leiko Ikemura’s ‘Memento Mori’ – Analysing Modern Art

For todays post I would like to do something a little different and touch upon the topic of modern art. Art, I have to admit, is not my area of expertise. But it is something we have been discussing in detail this week, as we have focused on a exhibition by Japanese-born artist Leiko Ikemura, currently displayed at the Sainsbury Centre here on the UEA campus. While I do not have the time to discuss every piece featured in this collection, I would like to take a moment to analyse one artwork that particularly caught my eye.

Leiko Ikemura’s Memento Mori was a piece which initially struck my interest because of how incredibly eerie I found it. It is very much an artwork that continually reshapes your perceptions of it the longer you gaze at it. At first glance I believed it to depict a mermaid, but on closer inspection I soon realised this was not the case. The identity of what Ikemura has painstakingly crafted is in fact much more complex and difficult to pin down in any kind of precise manner.

Photo taken by myself at the Leiko Ikemura: Usagi in Wonderland exhibition at the Sainsbury Centre

Ambiguity is a deliberate and overarching theme in a lot of Ikemura’s works. There is a tendency to blur together images of humans, animals and other natural forms, and the result is that you are never quite sure what you are actually seeing. This is very true of Memento Mori as well. The face and upper torso of the sculpture appears to be distinctly human, specifically that of a young girl. However, despite the youthfulness of her face she also appears to be decomposing, her eyes sunken and skin stretched taught. Furthering this theme of decomposition, we can also see two holes – one on the left side of her face and the other on her left shoulder – where the flesh has seemingly given way to decay.

However, while her upper body appears to be human, her lower half consists of what I originally mistook as a fish-tail but in reality is a mussel shell. In a guidebook pertaining to one of Ikemura’s previous exhibitions, it is noted that it is known from archaeological artefacts that in early civilisations the skulls of deceased people were sometimes decorated with seashells, hinting at an ancient human connection between shells and mortality*. Given that death is the explicit theme of this artwork (‘memento mori’ translates roughly from Latin as ‘remember you must die’), we can assume that this is an deliberate allusion.

Photo taken by myself at the Leiko Ikemura: Usagi in Wonderland exhibition at the Sainsbury Centre

It is also very possible that the flowing shape of this mussel shell could simultaneously be intended to evoke the impression of a dress, linking in with the theme of girlhood (or ‘shojo’), something that reoccurs heavily throughout Ikemura’s expansive portfolio. In this sense, Memento Mori feels like an allusion to the female life cycle; as women we begin our lives as little girls, before becoming mothers, and then succumbing to death, only for this life cycle to repeat through our own daughters.

While Memento Mori’s theme may be somewhat morbid, the sculpture itself is not particularly frightening or upsetting. Instead, there is a sense that it represents the life cycle; something neither good nor bad, just the natural order of things that is beyond human control. Taking the time to analyse this piece in detail has been an eye-opening experience for me, and an excellent opportunity to put the art-analysis theory we have covered in class in to practice.

To book tickets to visit the exhibition for yourself please follow this link.

References

*Leiko Ikemura & Mitsue Nagaya, (2019). Leiko Ikemura: Our Planet Earth & Stars, イケムラレイコ「土と星」, The National Art Centre, Tokyo. ISBN 9784763018373.

Sainsbury Institute Lectures – The Presence of Absence with Rebecca Salter, President of the Royal Academy of Arts

This week I was lucky enough to sit in on a rather special lecture hosted by the Sainsbury Institute as part of their Third Thursday Lecture series. This month’s lecture was special for a few different reasons. Firstly, it is the fifth in a series of lectures produced as a collaborative effort between numerous notable research institutions. Secondly, there were several distinguished guests in attendance, including the artist Leiko Ikemura, and representatives from event sponsors such as Yakult and the Sasakawa Foundation. But third and foremost, it was hosted by none other than Rebecca Salter; current president of the Royal Society of the Arts and an accomplished artist with a fascinating career.

Welcoming around two hundred guests both in person and online, Professor Salter began her lecture by telling the story of how she first came to study art in Japan as a young woman. Having originally arrived in the country to study as an apprentice under ceramics master Kazuo Yagi, following his unexpected death she found herself effectively a ‘masterless student’ in a foreign country. Undeterred, she soon developed a fascination with Japanese architecture, particularly in relation its use of space, and the manner in which Japan was a ‘world defined by the floor’ in contrast to the western ‘world defined by walls’ she had always been used to.

Drawing inspiration everywhere from the Ise Grand Shrine to formal Japanese gardens, the unique qualities of Japanese architecture have continually influenced Professor Salter’s work throughout a long and incredibly successful career. This lecture was highly visual as she took us through the different phases of her artistic career, illustrating these phases with examples of her work and the explanations behind how different aspects of Japanese architecture had inspired them.

She also took care to provide simplified explanations of her techniques, which as someone with limited artistic knowledge I greatly appreciated. As a lecture directed at a diverse audience of both academics and the general public, there was always the potential risk of alienating audience members who lacked prior knowledge of artistic technique. However, Professor Salter skilfully avoided this by explaining her tools, materials and techniques in a basic manner that was easy to follow, and simultaneously made the process of viewing her artwork all the more intriguing.

I found myself becoming very absorbed during this lecture; Professor Salter is a compelling speaker and her genuine love and admiration for Japan continually shone through during her talk. In her closing remarks prior to her brief Q&A, she reflected poignantly that ‘I find it hard to imagine that my long engagement with Japan will ever be done’. Indeed, Japanese influence is so intrinsically wrapped up in the creation process of her art that it is hard to imagine that this separation could ever happen, or what her artistic career would have even looked like without it.

Rebecca Salter’s lecture can be viewed for free on YouTube, and more information about her work and career can be found on her website.

CJS Lectures – Beauvoir in Japan: Lost (and Found) in Translation

After a short break I am back once again to give my third in a series of reviews of academic lectures relating to interdisciplinary Japanese studies. This week’s lecture comes courtesy of the Centre for Japanese Studies. Linked directly with both the University of East Anglia and the Sainsbury Institute for the Study of Japanese Arts and Cultures, the Centre for Japanese Studies provides regular Japanese studies related webinars, aimed both at the public and also academics with a research interest in Japan.

This week we were lucky enough to attend an online lecture created largely for the benefit of us MA in Interdisciplinary Japanese Studies students studying at UEA. Held by Professor Julia Bullock, a scholar of feminist studies based at the University of Atlanta, the lecture was entitled ‘Beauvoir in Japan: Lost (and Found) in Translation’. Examining the rise to popularity of French feminist writer Simone de Beauvoir among post-war Japanese women, this lecture provides a perfect example of how the discipline of Japanese studies will often find itself intersecting with other areas of humanities.

Following a brief introduction, Professor Bullock wasted little time taking us swiftly back in time to the mid-1960s, acquainting her audience with both the academic writings of Beauvoir, and the various reasons why her writing managed to resonate so deeply within the political climate of post-war Japan. While these explanations did feel rather hurried – unsurprising given the lectures one hour time frame – it is worth pointing out that Professor Bullock has also written a paper on this exact topic; Fantasy as Methodology: Simone de Beauvoir and Postwar Japanese Feminism. While it was expected of us to have already familiarised ourselves with this paper prior to the lecture, I really liked the fact that she still took the time to construct visual timelines to break down the sequence of events being described in an easy to understand manner. I know that for me, and I am sure many others, the provision of timelines can be an invaluable tool during fast-paced lectures for properly understanding the sequence and timing of specific historical events. In this way I feel that deliberate care was being taken to make sure that this lecture was accessible, both to people with an already detailed knowledge of Japan’s post-war history or past feminist movements, and those, like me, who are not as familiar.

There was clearly a deliberate effort to always ensure full understanding from all audience members at all times, and this was greatly appreciated. Professor Bullock thus avoided any sense of talking down to participants, or making this lecture an inaccessible space for those with less familiarity with post-war Japanese history. The lecture was friendly, engaging and highly informative, providing an excellent summary of the main findings of her Fantasy as Methodology: Simone de Beauvoir and Postwar Japanese Feminism paper, while also allowing us students the opportunity to approach her with further questions during a brief Q&A at the end of the session.

If you are interested in reading Professor Bullock’s writing on feminism in Japan, please see her page on Google Scholar. For more information about the Centre of Japanese Studies, please visit their website here.

‘Japan Season’ Lectures – Living in the Present Moment: The World of the Japanese Tea Ceremony

This will be my second blog post reflecting on an online lecture I have watched relating to Japanese culture. However, unlike my previous entry this lecture was not in fact held by the Sainsbury Institute, but rather Oxford University. Forming part of their ‘Japan Season’ of academic events this lecture was a discussion and demonstration of sado, or the Japanese tea ceremony. I actually have first-hand experience of participating in sado from my time living in Japan, so when I heard about this lecture I was very intrigued.

While the event itself was hosted and organised by Oxford University’s Professor Wes Williams and writer and journalist Akiko Yamanaka, our guide in to the world of sado was Yuki Okamoto. Based primarily in Kyoto, he is an ‘iemoto‘, or ‘incoming grand tea master’, hailing from a family of sado practitioners going back 170 years. As such, there is perhaps no better source from which to learn the intricacies and history of sado, making this lecture a truly unmissable opportunity.

In Yuki’s own words, sado has developed within Japanese culture over the centuries as a ‘ceremony to cultivate our mind and learn courtesy’. The practice of drinking strong, bitter matcha green tea as a stimulant was started by monks back in the 11th century. But it wasn’t until the 1600s that the more meditative, refined practice of drinking matcha, known then as ‘wabicha’, first began to emerge. By the 1900s the modern ‘sado‘ form of tea ceremony had become deeply ingrained in Japanese culture, so much so that it formed a compulsory part of girl’s formal education. It is perhaps because of this fact that today, according to Yuki, sado remains a female dominated tradition, with roughly 90% of practitioners being women.

But despite its ancient history, the practice of sado is argued to perform a very modern kind of function. Namely, that the slow, deliberate steps of performing or participating in sado resemble the same principles as a practice known as ‘mindfulness’. Purported to reduced stress and anxiety, mindfulness encourages people to pay more attention to their senses, surroundings and physical movements in order to ground themselves in the moment.

Having experienced sado myself, I can certainly confirm that participating in the ceremony forces you to slow down and get in touch with your senses in a way that busy modern life rarely allows you to. Watching the slow, deliberate movements of your host lulls you into a calm, almost sleepy state, while the hot, bitter taste of matcha jolts you sharply back to the present. In the near silence of the chashitsu (or ‘tearoom’) you are acutely aware of what you taste, hear, see and smell and, at least in my case, find yourself wondering whether the people around you are experiencing the same sensations too. It is an oddly profound experience, and one you don’t easily forget. And while I may not be in Japan and able experience sado again for myself right now, this lecture certainly brought back some special memories, and helped to reinforce my knowledge regarding this unique, fascinating tradition.

Sainsbury Institute Lectures – The Bridge to Heaven: Comparing UK-Japan Heritage

This week we were invited to watch one of the free monthly lectures held by The Sainsbury Institute for the Study of Japanese Arts & Cultures at Norwich Cathedral. In a change to the original schedule, this week’s lecture was held by Andy Hutchseon. A historian and archaeologist with a specialism in landscape archaeology, in February 2013 he was invited to take part in a two-day conference held in Japan to discuss the prospect of bestowing a UNESCO World Heritage designation to a famous location known as Amanohashidate.

Amanohashidate is a site of immense cultural significance in Japan. A sandbar located to the north of the Kyoto prefecture, its name roughly translates as ‘bridge to heaven’. It has been given this name as, when viewed from the mountains at either side of the bay, the white, pine covered sandbanks of Amanohashidate are believed to resemble a pathway connecting the heaven and the earth. These stunning views have inspired Japanese artists since the Heian period (CE 794 – 1192), with the earliest known reference to the site to be found in an uta-awase poetry competition held by Emperor Murakami in the 9th century. The fascination with Amanohashidate has also resulted in the erection of numerous historically significant buildings near its vicinity, a number of which Andy was given a tour of as part of the conference proceedings. Locations such as Naraiji Temple and Kasamatsu Park add to the argued world heritage value of Amanohashidate by bestowing it with additional historical heritage, while also serving as a physical testament to the cultural significance it has continually held for Japanese people.

Taking Andy and the other conference members in person to these locations, as well as to Amanohashidate itself, was a powerful way of conveying the national importance of Amanohashidate and potentially increasing its chances of becoming listed as a UNESCO World Heritage location. And this designation is something campaigners in Japan are pursuing with some urgency. Because without it, Amanohashidate could potentially disappear for ever.

Amanohashidate is, unfortunately, eroding. And without extensive anti-erosion constructions being installed to protect its sandbanks, they are predicted to disappear within the next century. But to take these preventative measures the local government need funding, and lots of it. And it is for this reason they seek to have Amanohashidate listed as an UNESCO World Heritage site. Without this designation and the international funding it would accrue as a result, in the near future we may no longer have Amanohashidate at all, and this beautiful landscape could vanish entirely.

Today, campaigning to have Amanohashidate listed as a world heritage site continues as both Japanese people and foreign historians argue its cultural importance. If you wish to find out more about Amanohashidate and the complexities of the UNESCO World Heritage organisation, Andy has published an OpenAccess paper on the topic which can be found here. And to find out more about the Sainsbury Institute and their monthly lectures, please visit their website.

‘Centre and Periphery in Japanese Historical Studies’: The Problems With Biased Historical Perspectives

When tracing the path of a nation’s history, it is often useful to establish a focal point from which we can track political, social and cultural changes over time. In Japanese studies this typically takes the form of historic political and economic centres such as Kyoto, or institutions like the imperial court. By focusing solely on one fixed point, it becomes easier for historians to chart the history of a country and its people. But while this approach may be easier, does it actually provide an accurate account of Japanese history? Not necessarily.

This is the argument being made by Michael Lewis in his chapter ‘Centre and Periphery in Japanese Historical Studies’, as featured in Companion to Japanese History. Here, he details how when we focus only on certain political or economic hubs while discussing Japanese history, we risk ignoring the groups of people who fell outside of these geographic areas. More specifically, it often leads us to disregard the histories of people living in Northern Japan, and contributes to the mistaken belief that Japan consists of one homogenous racial group. In reality, Northern Japan has its own group of indigenous people; the Ainu. But traditional approaches to looking at Japanese history has often disregarded their role in the history of Japan as a nation, resulting in an incomplete and often biased historical narrative.

In this chapter Lewis touches upon the writing of Tessa Morris-Suzuki, who reflects that this approach to exploring Japanese history has historically ‘proved useful for demarcating ‘‘Japanese-ness’’ from the otherness of peoples at the northern and southern frontier margins’. In other words, rather than looking at the population of Japan on a whole, this kind of approach can become a way of deciding who ‘is’ and ‘is not’ Japanese, potentially disregarding the role that ethnic minorities such as the Ainu have played in Japan’s complex history.  

And when we fail to recognise the contribution of the Ainu people to Japanese history, it leaves us unable to grasp the history of Northern Japan on a whole. Referencing the writing of Brett Walker, Lewis points out that rather than being an insulated society, the Ainu in fact historically had strong trade links with traders from Russia and China. However, the imposition of Japanese trading posts in Northern Japan during the 7th century disrupted these pre-existing trading relationships, erasing the role the Ainu played in connecting Japan with the outside world if history is viewed through a perspective which focuses only on the historical advancements of non-indigenous Japanese people.

Before reading this chapter, I had honestly never thought about how the common focus of Japanese historical narratives on centres of economic and political power may have actually been restricting my understanding of Japanese history. I had always simply assumed the writings of historians to be comprehensive and reliable, but the arguments put forward by Michael Lewis make it apparent that this is not always the case. This chapter has made it abundantly clear to me that when reading accounts of Japanese history, we should always go in with a healthy dose of scepticism, and also an preparedness to do the wider reading necessary to gain a truly comprehensive understanding of what can often be biased or inaccurate historical accounts. It is only by doing this that we can understand the full scope of Japanese history, and recognise the role that every individual group has played in its formation.