Tuesday, 7 April 2009

Letter from Nagoya

"What do you know about the Buddhist aesthetic, Mr. Hazard?" My hostile interrogator was the man I had come to Japan to interview, Yoshinobu Tokugawa (1933-2005), director of the Tokugawa Art Museum in Nagoya, which was about to display his family's art treasures for the first time in America. Display them his way, the austere way he believed Japanese art objects were supposed to be displayed, not in the gross Supermarket style in vogue since 1868 when the Meiji Restoration had ended the 250 year reign of his Togukawa family by returning the emperor's throne to the heirs of the Sun God.

Tokugawa's unfriendly tone (I couldn't help but notice the slur of his blipping my Ph.D. in a culture ordinarily obsessed with status) was reinforced by his dour mien, glowering at me from behind his office desk, a surprisingly tall, stocky man for an
Asian his age, dressed meticulously in a well-tailored, funereally black suit. Oh boy! If it had been an American academic pulling such a ploy, I would have parried with an equally insolent maneuver.

But I quickly recalled the hassles I had just endured to get this "fifteen minute interview": countless entreaties at Dentsu, the advertising agency publicizing the exhibition's world tour--to no avail; romancing the Minolta North American PR director over drinks at the Foreign Correspondents club to convince him that articles in the San Francisco press would be worth his throwing his sponsoring company's weight a bit to get me to the reclusive Yoshinobu; and uncounted phone calls to the Museum's Tokyo research facility to set up an interview. Only later was I to comprehend that Yoshinobu's appearance of insolence was really the reactions of an unconfident autodidact in the face of another one of "those Academics" presumably skeptical of his idiosyncratic message about the Japanese cultural heritage.

So, biting my ordinarily arrogant tongue, I played Boy Scout humble to his intimidating introduction: "Why, I don't know anything about the Buddhist aesthetic, Mr. Tokugawa. That's why I'm here to learn from you."

The faintest trace of a skeptical sneer flickered across his lugubrious face as he seated himself to begin an impromptu tutorial. "The Buddhist aesthetic is based on the belief that art objects derive their power from their juxtaposition in situ as sacred objects in holy ceremonies. After Meiji, in an ill-conceived effort to ape the Western museum, Japanese curators began to break up their collections of ritual objects by genre and/or by era: a room for scroll paintings, another for flower vases, still another for the implements of the tea ceremony, with larger collections being further subdivided by era, or even by creative master."

It was an exhilarating intellectual adventure for me. Early into the interview, Tokugawa knew from the nature of my questions that I was following him, that I was a serious student, possibly even a convert to his esoteric beliefs. He even turned on a little charm towards the end of our "fifteen minute" interview: Two and half hours later he thanked me for my attention but apologized that he had to cut short the seminar because he was due at a funeral. Black suit indeed.

If you visit Exhibit Room 2 at his recently rehabbed and expanded Museum in Nagoya (the updating of facilities was both to celebrate the museum's Golden Jubilee and to comply with federal guidelines for national subsidies), you can see his theories in action. But you have to look carefully, for we are dealing here not with the MegaShow Syndrome––the ultimate irrational conclusion of Western traditions of art warehousing––but its philosophical antithesis: Japanese minimalism in which Less is not More, It is Most. The art objects to be scrutinized and savored are not inert collections of putatively Great Objects, but rather a suite of tools for a sacred ceremony. Thus if you look carefully and collectedly you will see in a traditional tea ceremony house the scroll painting on the wall, the vase with fresh flowers on a pedestal before it and to the right the implements that will be used in the tea ceremony.

It is useful to recall that this self-made art museum director (he began life as an economist and banker and assumed the museum responsibilities as a family obligation) authenticated himself as an art historian by publishing two solid art history books, one on Okinawa lacquer ware, and, most importantly, on the tea caddy as a minor but crucial genre in a culture dominated by the tea ceremony.

Thus this remarkable man benignly obsessed by the desire to show the whole Japanese art community how they abused and degraded their heritage by framing it with Western perspectives dropped out of his successful life as a banker to become an intern at Tokyo's National Museum in the 1960's. Significantly, he specialized in the study of the documents left by Ieyasu Tokugawa (1543-1616), that great peacemaker who blessed Japan with two and a half centuries of freedom from marauding local warlords, even as he sealed off the culture from further penetration by the West except for a tiny toehold of a trading center outside Nagasaki.

For Tokugawa's irredentist ideas about Japanese art are inextricably connected with his family's fortunes in the modern history of Japan. I found it interesting that the last and fifteenth Tokugawa to rule Japan before the Meji Restoration was also named Yoshinobu (1837-1913).

The resonance of the name cannot have escaped the fiercely historical mentality of the current Yoshinobu. The former Yoshinobu ruled during most of that turbulent last year of the Edo Period begun by the legendary Ieyasu. During that reign of peace and prosperity made possible by Ieyasu's taming of of the petty warlords or daimyos, Buddhism was the reigning religion. The Emperor had complete control over its various sects, outlawed the building of private temples, and with the National Seclusion policy of 1639 proscribed Christianity which Ieyasu and his advisers correctly believed would constitute a potent dissolver of the Buddhist hegemony. That quasi-monopoly perhaps inevitably led to a more worldly and spiritually degraded form of that religion farther and farther removed from the real needs of the general community.

Thus after Meiji when Shinto displaced Buddhism as the dominant religion, the Buddhists were to undergo a time of travail that they have only recently surmounted. Shinto officials decreed that all Buddhist image and implements be removed from Shinto-controlled shrines. And shrines for local or guardian gods were dismantled. Throughout Japan there were frequent violent anti-Buddhist outbursts with some temples demolished or closed, and sacred statues and implements destroyed. As early as 1871 many temple lands were confiscated by the new Meiji regime thereby triggering a severe economic crisis for the Buddhist religious community.
Hence religious activity declined sharply or disappeared altogether, usually restricted to funeral services and memorial rites. World War II inflicted further damage on religious buildings.

Indeed, it wasn't until the MacArthur Constitution of 1947 that Freedom of Religious Faith became a common guarantee. Gradually, Buddhism recovered some of its lost influence by the mid 50's––by opening grounds to the public, preaching more worldly benefits, with priests from small temples moonlighting at other jobs to subsidize their own priestly obligations. Analogously it was a time of troubles for the heirs of the displaced Tokugawa regime.

Nagoya, where Ieyasu permitted his ninth son to build a castle in 1612, eventually would become after Meiji the titular center of the Tokugawa heritage. Historically it was important as a main stop on the road from Kyoto to Edo (Modern Tokyo). Ieyasu had solidified his power by requiring that the feuding daimyos make some members of their families reside in Edo, virtual hostages to the good behavior of their daimyos. Crafts persons for the court and pleasure givers for the samurai soon surrounded the castle, giving the city the substantial population of l00,000 in the early 1800's (at which time, Tokyo's one million souls surpassed Paris' population in size.)

After Meiji, Nagoya became an important port city, opened to international shipping. And in the l930's the city's factories supplied the Japanese expedition to Manchuria with munitions and aircraft. (It didn't help the future prospects of the then new Tokugawa Museum of Art that its principal patron's fortune was invested in the Manchurian Railway.) The city's strategic importance meant that American bombers virtually razed it during World War II––including the historic castle which is a ferro-concrete simulation of the original destroyed in 1945. Almost all the city's Tokugawa era buildings were destroyed, and it was pure luck that some 7,000 (the number now exceed 20,000) of the extended family's treasures (ancient armor, swords, paintings and asserted household articles) survived the bombing raids to become the core of the Museum's collections.

New government cultural subsidies exacted as quid pro quo greater public access so the Tokugawa Art Museum rebuilt its facilities and redeployed its holdings in the prescribed Buddhist fashion.

In the introduction to the catalog for "The Shogun Age" which began its world tour at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in l983, Yoshinobu explains the origins and mission of the museum he directs."The TAM is a repository of the family treasure of the Owari Tokugawa family, established by Ieyasu, the founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate, as one of the three main branches from which his successors might be chosen. The first lord of the Owari Tokugawa family was his ninth son, Yoshinonobu, who was granted a field of 620,000 koku––that is, an estate yielding three million bushels of rice; the seat of his domain was Nagoya Castle.

The TAM collection is, in a word, the household property of Yoshinobu and his descendants. In the century since the Meiji Restoration, and especially during the hardships of World War II and the immediate post-war period, the descendants of many of the three hundred feudal lords of the Edo Shogunate have had to sell the treasures that had been handed down in their families for generations, and precious collections have been scattered and lost. Marquis Yoshichika, the nineteenth lord of the Owari Togukawa family, however, decided in l93l to establish a foundation––the Owari Tokujgawa Reimeikai--to preserve the treasures of his family as an important cultural asset, and make them available for both scholarly research and public appreciation."

It is crucial to keep in mind this filiopietistic dimension to Yoshinobu's crusade to redirect the art museum policies of Japan. On my subsequent three visits to Japan, I made it a point to try to determine what credence his restoration campaign had gained. It seemed to me almost no one took it seriously. In all my rummaging around I came across only one person--a newly minted Ph.D. at the Museum of Modern Art in Sapporo--who was willing to take Yoshinobu's revisionism as a credible option.

And her dissertation topic was Nara, that quintessential deer park of National Treasures, the least Meijied place in all Japan. Some snootily alluded to his banking antecedents, implying what more you could expect from an untrained person. Others more politely regard him as a kind of Oriental Canute, feebly commanding the multiplicitous waves of Modernism to withdraw their turbulent crests. That doesn't of course means he's wrong--or even without hope. Japan is a weirdly consensual culture where when a point of view gains ascendancy it takes more than an intellectual earthquake or tsunami to displace it.

Moreover, there prevails in Japan what I call the Flip Flop phenomenon. After all, if you had predicted to some mid-nineteenth century Tokugawa amateur of the family's treasures that shortly after Meiji all Japanese museum would be patterned on Euro-American models, he would have scoffed in utter disbelief. Yet once the consensus developed, WHAM.

That was a real Flip. Leading up to an even greater Flop. For gradually, as the Japanese got the hang of the new Western ways--their winning the Russo-Japanese War of 1905 may be seen as a watershed--the old diffidence was gradually supplanted by the aggressive nationalism we remember as the Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere. In American war propaganda, General Tojo became shorthand for this Flip. But the dire and utterly demoralizing flop of World War II brought the Japanese back to a Meiji like diffidence deepened by guilt and shame.

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