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Episode Five | Morgan Pitelka

July 30, 2020

[guitar music]

Dr. Allison Alexy: Hello and welcome to Michigan Talks Japan, a new podcast from the Center for Japanese Studies at the University of Michigan. I'm Allison Alexy. In each episode I’ll talk with a scholar working in Japanese Studies – across academic disciplines, across time periods.

As a content warning, this conversation includes a brief, general description of sexual violence, which occurs around minute 33 of the recording.

It's my pleasure today to be talking with Dr. Morgan Pitelka, who is professor of History and Asian Studies at the University of North Carolina and is also chair of the Department of Asian studies. Thank you so much for being with us. Would you mind starting by telling us just a little bit about the research that you're doing now?

Dr. Morgan Pitelka: Sure. Well, I'm in the very final stages of writing a book and of course that means the research should be done and dusted. But as you know, when you're writing, you're still researching and I'm still finding new materials, actually just today, this morning, I went to the library to the Asia library here at the University of Michigan and found a new book that’s exactly related to my topic I hadn't seen yet.

Allison: [laughs] Oh no!

Morgan: It was great. And I found a diagram that's going to really help me figure out a problem in one of my chapters. So I'm in that phase where I have to decide if I want to cut things off and commit or if I want to keep working. But the topic of the book is urban life in 16th century Japan, at the end of the medieval period. And the case study is the capital of Echizen province, which is a now basically unknown city called Ichijôdani. It was a thriving urban center for a century before it was destroyed in the civil wars, or the Wars of Unification. It's a different kind of project for me. Most of my previous work used art objects, heirloom art objects. Beautiful, valuable things that have been passed down in collections, as the primary objects that I studied. But in this case, the material culture is excavated by archeologists. So it's a much wider gamut of things. It's not just elite objects, but everyday things as well.

Allison: Before we go further, what was it that you found in the book? What question were you excited to solve?

Morgan: The city of Ichijôdani was built around the headquarters of the Asakura warlord family. And they were the Sengoku daimyô, or the warlords of this age of Warring States who ruled the province through force, basically. The town of Ichijôdani is often called a castle town. But, in fact, one of the things I've noticed in my research is the castle is not really part of the town at all. It's on a distant peak and the town is built around the palatial residence of the Asakura. So I've come to think of it more as a palace city than a castle town. And the diagram I found in the book, was by an archeologist named Ono Masatoshi, who's done a lot of work in Ichijôdani, talking about how to read structures, how to read buildings from the late medieval period as historical evidence. He has a diagram of the Asakura palace, and he was one of the archeologists who did some of the original work on the excavation of that site. He's continued to study it and he now has figured out what warrior rituals happen in which spaces.

Allison: Wow.

Morgan: And so the kind of labeling and disaggregation of the site has really moved a long way. I struggled when I was writing the chapter that deals with that site, with how little we know. Because archeologists are digging up the foundations of these buildings, but the buildings were destroyed. He's really taken the analysis of the site to a level that I hadn't imagined was possible. So it's nice for me since I'm relying a lot on the excavation reports, but also on the scholarship of my Japanese colleagues. When there's a step forward, it helps us all to describe this place and its meaning better. I'm really excited.

Allison: That's really cool.

Morgan: It's such a nerdy thing to get excited about. [laughs]

Allison: No, that's fine. Northing can beat pure nerdiness. So we're calling it a palace. Is that the English word that we're using for their compound?

Morgan: Or residence.

Allison: Residence, okay. Was there any commonality of residences across Japan, across regions? Is there a way that if we figure out how one residence was situated in, I don't know, Kyūshū, this would give us some information about this space as well?

Morgan: Definitely. And one of the issues that I'm trying to articulate in the book is that in the 16th century, which often of course is called the Sengoku period in Japanese, this the age of Warring States, there's political decentralization, right? There's not a strong central authority in Kyoto. The Imperial court is weak. The shogunate is, basically disempowered. And so these warlords that rule these scattered domains around the country, they look to Kyoto in certain ways for inspiration. They're influenced by the political and cultural practices of the Ashikaga shogunate when it was strong, in the 14th century and the 15th century. But they innovate and then they evolve. The palaces and the castles of these warlords around Japan have these key structures from the Ashikaga palaces. For example, the gathering room or the kaisho where banquets would be held, where Chinese art would be displayed on the shelves that are built into the walls and in the tokonoma – this is where that element of the room that decorative alcove comes from – are found in most of these palaces. It's not just because warlords liked Chinese art, which they did. I argue both in my previous book, which is called Spectacular Accumulation, it's about Tokugawa Ieyasu – and also in this book that for these elite warriors, social and cultural rituals, like banquets, like visitation ceremonies, like gift exchanges, like tea ceremonies were the places and the spaces in which really important political transactions occurred. Negotiations about hierarchy, new alliances, difficult conversations about, who's going to ride into battle first and who's going to be protected at the back. All that kind of stuff happens in those, in those gathering rooms, in those contexts. So not all of it, but much of it. I think we're starting to understand that that ritual provided a framework for warrior politics to unfold. So culture is not this kind of afterthought. It's very much at the center of the way these warlords operated in the Sengoku period. And it's exciting for me as someone who started out studying tea and ceramics to continue to make the claim that I've been trying to make all along that culture matters, not just to people who like aesthetics. That culture and cultural production and practice is at the heart of the political history of Japan. 

Allison: That also reminds me of one of the things you mentioned today about these, single use, common – I'm forgetting the term for it.

Morgan: Kawarake.

Allison: Kawarake.

Morgan: The use of these earthenware serving vessels, or ritual vessels, in pre-modern Japan is really under studied, especially in the Anglophone scholarship. I think it's another piece of evidence for the central role that ritual played in the lives of elites. We find these huge quantities of these broken earthenware dishes in sites where political activity occurred. It's because they were used to exchange sake to exchange drinks in these ceremonies that seem to have created a sense of mutual benefit. I think those ceremonies were very key to the way warrior organizations function. These heavily armed men who easily could have betrayed one another, go through this ritual exchange of alcohol to build trust. Then they exchange gifts. They give swords, they give gold, they give horses, they give falcons, you know, all these cool 16th century objects. 

Allison: Everything about this sounds awesome.

Morgan: The fact that they're thrown away points at the importance of purity, of ritual purity in these gatherings. That's not the only use sometimes they're used to burn oil or candles, or for offerings at shrines and temples also. There's actually a related practice that happens in the caste system in India, where the priestly caste, the Brahmin caste traditionally – this is less true, I think today – but traditionally would, eat off of plates only one time, and then they would be destroyed, so that whatever the serving dish is considered ritually pure. There's interesting connections that can be made around those objects. That's the kind of material that is excavated in huge quantities in Ichijôdani. I can't remember the exact number was something like 85% of everything that is excavated is these kawarake. You almost never see them in museums. 

Allison: I don't think I've ever seen them before, certainly. But maybe I have and didn't pay that much attention cause it doesn't look – like it's sort of like a flat bowl.

Morgan: It is the most utilitarian of objects. It's undecorated, unglazed, pinched rather than thrown on a wheel. So there's no real technical, marvel there but important. So it's kind of a perfect example of the way that these plebeian objects, and this is a field that anthropologists have really been pioneers in, but you know, the way that studying everyday rhythms and rituals and objects sometimes produces the most wonderful insights. 

Allison: One of the things I was really struck by is that you're building connections between history and historians and archaeology and archeologists, which are not typical, I think in any way. I had never thought about the gap, but once you pointed it out, I was like, of course it's completely obvious. And even though people are interested, presumably both interested in the past and the human past, they're not reading each other so much. Is that fair? I think that's fair to say. Right? 

 

Morgan: Yeah. I think it is. I mean, I actually don't know the archeological context as well in the US but in Japan, archaeology is a big business.

Allison: It’s a big deal.

Morgan: It's very well funded or at least it used to be very well funded. There were strict laws about, excavations having to occur if certain discoveries were made or certain kinds of sites were located during the building of a parking lot or a highway or whatever. At one point I believe there were more archeologists per capita in Japan than anywhere else in the world, which is pretty amazing. 

Allison: I would believe it just based on the fact that archaeology makes, like, newspaper headlines in Japan.

Morgan: Exactly.

Allison: That I've never seen anywhere else, really.

Morgan: Exactly. And I think that can be read both in positive or sort of optimistic ways, but also kind of cynically. There's a kind of narcissistic quality sometimes to archeological discoveries in Japan, where it tends to reinforce certain narratives of the nation and certain ideas of Japaneseness. I think that archeologists in the sixties and seventies increasingly felt that they needed to justify the work they were doing. Archaeology is a very technical discipline. Most archeologists I think are closer to the sciences than they are to the humanities. It's a social science certainly, but it's on the more quantitative side. So many measurements and such careful attention to esoteric details that are really hard to explain, I think, to the general public. The Alliance between historians and archeologists in what's called historic archaeology or the study of documented periods in Japanese history, that became really strong in the 1960s and 70s and even more so in the 80s – was a natural, partnership. Historians tend to write their narratives with non-historians in mind. Whereas archeologists were producing these reports that only other archeologists could understand. A whole range of collaborative series and volumes and conferences that began, in that period, and that suddenly exposed all this amazing archeological research to students of history but also just to the general public. It allowed the complexities of say stratigraphy – right, the layering in which you find certain objects and you date them and you figure out how things that are higher up are related to things lower down – the more technical side of archaeology to suddenly have meaning for a public that probably wants to know why so much money has been spent on this field. And now, as part of the wonderful, booming tourist industry in Japan, visiting archeological sites, these old castle sites, these battlefield sites kind of like Civil War, heritage business in the United States, I think it's really booming. Even for the new wave of tourists from China and elsewhere in the world. It's a fun field to explore because there's been very little written about it in English and, and it's great scholarship. 

Allison: Yeah, that was one of the other connections I was thinking about. You're very clearly working with Japanese language, secondary or tertiary sources and engaging Japanese scholarship. We're all engaging Japanese language literature, but it always seems like the conversations happening in Japanese language scholarship are a little different than, or what are happening in English language scholars. 

Morgan: Well, we have to be translators don't we?

Allison: Yeah.

Morgan: Well we have to figure out what matters to readers who are looking at our English language publications. And it's not sometimes the most detailed and most fine-grained nuanced work. I once went to a talk when I was a grad student by a historian who I really respected, that was about a single letter that had been written by a warlord and it broke it down into the tiniest details and never really explained why it mattered. It was fascinating, but I also immediately realized I could never translate this into English and expect my readers to understand or appreciate why it matters. So for this project, I am drawing on the secondary scholarship of Japanese historians and archeologists. I'm also using all the original archeological reports. And it's interesting. I mean, it's data. So it is primary evidence of a kind. It's mediated, but our data often is mediated. Fortunately, there's also primary sources, documents that were preserved outside of Ichijôdani that survived that I'm drawing on as well. So it's a balancing act. I mean, I have objects, I have the site reports, I have all the secondary scholarship, and then I have all this rich documentary evidence, all of it in Japanese. I don't foreground that as much as some people do. I think some historians like to have the method and the challenges of readings be part of the story. I tend to tuck that stuff to the side and just try to tell a story more about, the flow of history itself, our big picture understanding of the Japanese past and a little bit less about the making of it.

Allison: Are Japanese historians – by that I mean, historians who live and work in Japan and write in Japanese – are they more engaged with archaeology than American historians? 

Morgan: I think the last few generations of historians – of course there's such incredible variety.

Allison: I realize I’m asking a broad question.

Morgan: There have been many more historians who have worked in archaeological research institutes in history museums that often pair archaeology and history – and art history actually. There have been, partnerships. For example, I write in the book about, Amino Yoshihiko, who's of course a famous, influential social historian of medieval Japan, or pre-modern Japan. And Ishii Susumu who's a historian, as well. They collaborated with a number of archeologists from Ichijôdani and other places to produce all these wonderful volumes of scholarship. The archeologist Ono Masatoshi, the historian Satô Kei have teamed up and done a lot of really amazing work. I think on the whole, yes, they are. It's odd because the disciplines are actually pretty rigid in the Japanese institutional context. Like if you go to Kyoto University or Waseda or someplace, and you want to do two disciplines, you basically can't. You are in one department or another. It's very hard sometimes to cross over. But once people are out in the real world working in museums or working on a site-based project, I think that collaboration becomes more possible. And the other thing I would mention is that there was a generation of historians trained in the United States that was very focused on institutional documents, on a very particular type of primary source. They’re amazing historians, all the people who came out of Stanford under Jeff Mass, who really built medieval, historical studies of Japan in the United States as a field. I did not study with Professor Mass but my understanding is that archaeology was not on the table. It's now an opportunity for, for people to take advantage of the huge strides that have been made in Japan. 

Allison: I was thinking a lot about it because I'm trying to be self conscious about my presentism as a contemporary anthropologist or anthropologist of the contemporary world. I was wondering if possibly what was going on, too, is if historians are more trained, are more focused on texts and therefore material culture becomes

Morgan: Oh yeah.

Allison: the antithesis, right. I imagine there might be some tension between things written down and material culture.

Morgan: Oh, huge. I went to graduate school in the mid nineties and there was a material turn happening in the humanities at that time. A lot of interest in the study of literature, in the study of history, in working with objects, sometimes architecture, decorative art, quote unquote, fine art. Out of that came this really diverse field of material culture studies. the challenge for me was always explaining what my discipline was. I thought of myself as a historian who also worked with things, but a lot of historians were very suspicious of that. I've told this story many times, maybe even on a podcast. I applied for a job once. I didn't make it to the shortlist and someone who I knew at the institution said, “yeah, someone on the search committee told me they liked your work, but they thought you were an art historian in disguise.” [Allison laughs] And one of the reasons that my first book had a tea bowl on the cover.

Allison: Right. Which would make sense, because I think it might've been about tea! [laughs]

Morgan: It was a history of a family of potters who worked in the tea world. Yeah. But it was a history. I'm not an art historian. I don't have that training. It is very true that, the field of history has not always embraced the study of objects as much as the study of texts or as a kind of supplement to the study of texts. But I think a lot of those barriers have been broken down. I mean now with the rise of environmental history as well people are as likely to be using scientific reports as evidence as they are museum objects or documents from an archive. So I see that as an incredibly exciting development. 

Allison: Would you mind talking a little bit about how you came to this project either through earlier work you did, or just your personal interests?

Morgan: Sure. My background is that my father is a professional potter. He's an artist and a professor of art and my mother is a historian. 

Allison: I didn't realize that. [laughs]

Morgan: And I kind of mashed these things together.

Allison: You did a really nice job, didn't you?

Morgan: And became a historian of ceramics initially. Yeah, well, it's funny. I was fishing around for projects for my dissertation, and I was introduced to the curator for Asian ceramics at the Smithsonian, a wonderful scholar and mentor and friend named Louise Cort. One of the ideas she suggested to me was Ichijôdani, because it's amazing for the study of ceramics. So if you want to study, the consumption side of ceramics, what people were buying and using, an urban site like Ichijôdani allows you to see that in great detail. How is wealth correlated to ceramic consumption? What kind of things were circulating into and out of Japan and in and out of these cities, et cetera. I decided instead to work on tea and ceramics and looked at the Raku family, but it was always there on my mind. Then my second project looked at the Tokugawa, especially Tokugawa Ieyasu, as collectors and as patrons of the arts and as practitioners of these social and cultural rituals that I described before. And at the end of these two projects, I realized that although in graduate school I had been very interested in differentials of power and class, I had somehow ended up working only on elites. I was surprised by that myself. It wasn't intentional. I think it's because I was using heirloom objects and those tend to be high quality, expensive objects that are passed down in collections. Ichijôdani suddenly seemed like a project that would allow me to continue working on both material culture and warriors, which were topics I had become interested in, but to look at a more diverse community, a wider, landscape of people and their daily practices. It's been really rewarding, to not be limited by the kind of collecting habits of elites over time. Part of what's challenging about studying something like elite tea ceramics or the swords that warriors collected is there's this editing process that happens generation after generation, right? Where certain objects are shed, something that they originally collected very enthusiastically, but then came to feel didn't matter, or wasn't good enough, they could just trash and you would never know. So the collection that you receive in the present is such a highly mediated kind of archive that it's hard to connect it to the past. Ichijôdani is so different because it's like the, what is it, the insect trapped in amber.

Allison: Yeah, Jurassic Park.

Morgan: Right, Jurassic Park. I mean, it's this moment trapped in time and, that's so rare. That was what attracted me to the project. 

Allison: The palace city where you're focused is giving you a fantastic range of access to all these different sort of social class experiences. You're also talking about it as something that's destroyed and destroyed down to the foundations. I was really compelled by your very careful attention and sort of redirecting us all to pay attention to a narrative of unification that comes immediately after this, and the violence that's getting ignored or minimized. So I was wondering if you wouldn't mind talking a little bit more about that? 

Morgan: Sure. There is a long history in Japan of civil Wars. The civil wars of the late 16th century are hardly the first time that opposing armies have clashed in Japan. And yet somehow the scale of the violence under Oda Nobunaga, in particular, but continuing, I think, under Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Iyeasu – it's not that it's ignored, it's that it's kind of unexamined. It is allowed to be mentioned without really being interrogated because everybody knows that it leads to the Tokugawa Shogunate being established in 1603 and the creation of a polity, a federation with the daimyô ruling the domains and the shogun and Edô, and this peaceful kind of locked down society that is threatening, but, but also it's also pax Tokugawa, right? It's this long period of peace and everywhere else in the world, there are terrible wars happening in Japan is in this kind of utopian space. I understand that. And I think, I think I myself have taught that narrative many times over many years and written about it without even questioning it. But reading about the chain of events that leads up to the complete elimination of this thriving city of 10,000 people and the family that ruled it, the destruction of the buildings, wiping it off the face of the earth and it's never resettled – gave me pause and made me question, how many other communities were destroyed in the same way. It's really easy to just look at the CV, the resume of Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi. This is particularly vivid in some of the war tales that are written later, so they might be exaggerated, but the accounts like Shinchô kôki, which is the Chronicle of Lord Nabunaga, just day after day – "We took 500 heads. We burnt this castle to the ground. We captured all of these women and children who were on the run and, we've taken them in," you know, what does that mean? Like those sorts of stories are everywhere in those tails. And so this period is actually very tragic. But instead there's a triumphalist narrative about the inexorable movement towards quote unquote unity. But there's no questioning about the cost. And I contrast that with the great World Wars or lots of conflicts in more recent human history where there's been tremendous loss of life, but the outcome is seen as positive. Usually there still is a lot of important questions asked about the effect on civilians and the destruction of communities. I just don't see that happen for the 16th century. It's puzzling. It may be that in the scramble after the battle of Sekigahara, when all of the warlords were reassigned to different domains. Some were demoted. Some were given much larger plots of land and this new society emerged. It may be that in the tumult of that complete transformation, somehow the violence and the deaths of the late 16th century – it was too much to handle, to deal with all of that change at once. So people were focused on that moment and on the future. But really, I think, unprecedented violence of Nobunaga Hideyoshi was kind of forgotten. 

Allison: I found myself thinking about two things. I found myself thinking about Pompeii and I was also thinking about the Tulsa race massacre, 1921, right?

Morgan: Yeah, next year’s the big anniversary.

Allison: Oh I didn’t even think of the anniversary. I was thinking about it in terms of the TV show Watchman. But I was thinking about Pompeii, which is obviously a more sudden violent erasure and it's quote unquote, natural, right. You were describing the museum that's built in the city now, right?

Morgan: Yeah, yeah.

Allison: Why does some violent death, violent erasure get memorialized, and how does it get memorialized?

Morgan: The question of memorialization and what is remembered and what is institutionally forgotten is very much related to this project. I don't think anyone would argue that Ichijôdani doesn't deserve to be remembered or to be, memorialized or even museum-afied. There are no anti-Ichijôdani activists that I know of. Rather there are a huge number of Nobunaga fans, right? The kind of cult of these 16th century warlords. They appear in manga and anime. They appear in video games. They're in movies and dramas. I often meet young people in Japan who tell me, you know, "I'm a history fan and I know everything about these warlords." Which is great at one level, but it also means that the cult of personality around these three men completely obscures their actual actions and the kind of complicated histories, of the periods in which they lived. I think our thinking about those moments tends to be drawn forward, in this teleological way, towards the early modern and towards the modern, ultimately. The question of quote unquote, manmade disasters versus natural disasters, I think is really interesting because of course now the work of folks in environmental sciences who look at disasters and resiliency and all that stuff, they will say that all environmental disasters are the product of human environment interactions. So in that sense, Pompeii is the results of active decisions people made about where to settle and how to live their lives. Maybe the linkage there actually is that much as we have denied for centuries, our own role, our own social and cultural role in natural disasters, there is a kind of denial in the historiography of Japan or in this meta-narrative of Japanese history of the possibility space of the medieval. This starts to sound like a counterfactual. I'm not very interested in counterfactuals, but life didn't have to end up being dominated by Nobunaga and Hideyoshi and Ieyasu. There were other possibilities. There were contingencies. At the very least the Asakura and all the people who lived in Ichijôdani, didn't wake up one day and say, "well, this is Nobunaga's world." There were infinite other possibilities. And by not taking that worldview and that diversity of experience seriously, we lose a lot of potential understanding about that moment.

Allison: I was also thinking a little bit about Article Nine and pacifism in Japan. I couldn't decide if you would have been a pacifist coming into this project, or if you would be a pacifist going out of this project – anyone, you personally, or anyone.

Morgan: [laughs] Yeah, yeah.

Allison: But it struck me that post-World War II Japanese narratives of a national identity of peace loving, which I think polls suggest is still the case, no matter Abe’s preference for revising the Constitution. So I was wondering how that might fit in. This is in contradiction to what you just said, that if history fans are fans of warlords, maybe – I don't know how to put those two together.

Morgan: I think there's a lot of misremembering going on basically. And they are fans of a vision of warlords that sees them as heroic figures who were great for the arts and had to kill some people along the way.

Allison: [laughs] Got it.

Morgan: I think that it's dangerous to, misremember war and the people who led and fought wars. One of many reasons why that's dangerous is because the specter of Japan rearming and the many possibilities that would be opened up by that political change to me, as someone who is pretty much a pacifist, are disturbing. Article Nine and its history are incredibly complicated and I don't mean to imply that that's a simple matter that shouldn't be examined and interrogated. But any country that can somehow finagle a situation where they don't have to be constantly teased by the opportunity to wage war, that seems to me like a good deal. The many ways in which modern Japan misremembers its military past, that's a theme in my work. Part of Spectacular Accumulation was about the way that the heritage of these elite samurai, especially the Tokugawa, had been sanitized in the modern era. That's what the last chapter is about. The Tokugawa art museum – which is a wonderful institution in Nagoya, an incredible museum, brilliant curators – also, unfortunately, I think, perpetuates a vision of the Tokugawa as these enlightened lords of culture, rather than really acknowledging the brutality and violence that Ieyasu deployed to gain power and that was constantly threatened to the people of Tokugawa Japan. I suppose it's natural for historians to want us to get the facts straight, but above and beyond that, I think it's politically dangerous in this historical moment, more than any, perhaps for us to be sanitizing the past. If different Japanese political leaders are thinking about rearming Japan, I think they need to take seriously the effects that wars had on their own people in the past, even the distant past. It's not just a question of self-defense. As we know in this country, in terms of gun violence, when you're armed, sometimes you turn those weapons on the people you love, not just on your ostensible enemies. And that's the kind of learning that can come, I think, from a more careful study of the Age of Warring States and its devastating effects. 

Allison: Maybe part of what's going on when people are motivated to have this sanitized narrative is about the unification. So that Japan is now Japan and therefore it's anything that gets us to that kind of unified Japan, this group of islands, these groups of people, if we even want to acknowledge ethnic diversity within Japan, has to have been a good thing.

Morgan: Yeah. A lot of scholars and historians in Japan have, done amazing work excavating the diversity of the different regions of Japan, of different status groups, different, embodied experiences of men and women and young people and old people. So that the idea that there is sort of one Japanese person and one Japanese experience has been thoroughly collapsed, which is a good thing. And so maybe, this doesn't have to be about completely upending the vision of Japanese identity or of a shared Japanese history, but acknowledging conflict, acknowledging, contestation that is not just felt but involves massive traumatic loss of life. I write about the reality that sexual violence was a huge component of the wars of unification, and is viscerally I think one of the things that people react to as being really abhorrent and really devastating. So here's a question: What is the kind of trauma that, that society holds when the Tokugawa period has started from years and years of that kind of violence? How does that affect families, communities in the Tokugawa period? What is the kind of afterlife of that sexual violence? I don't think anyone has looked into that, you know, and maybe we don't have the sources to do so. But I can't imagine that it doesn't have a huge effect for generations, if not longer. It changes gender relations. It devastates people's lives. There's a lot that we lose by ignoring, or glossing over the kinds of destruction that happened in Ichijôdani in the name of unification.

Allison: I'm thinking now of research about Partition, and moments like that of epigenetic influence of terrible trauma that might be sexual or otherwise.

Morgan: Right.

Allison: So as you're doing this research, and I know you're close to finishing the book have there been any particular details or pieces of information or data or evidence that you are especially excited to find? In addition, of course, to the book that you read this morning here at the University of Michigan's library?

Morgan: Right. Yes. Sure. Well, one of the things that Ichijôdani is famous for in terms of the study of ceramics is the rich variety of ceramics imported from East Asia, from China and Korea. It's not the most Chinese and Korean ceramics that you can find in medieval Japan. There are other sites that have even more. But there's just a real variety in use. You can see that East Asian ceramics are used for those elite social rituals. They're used for tea ceremonies and banquets, but they're also used for daily food consumption. So you can start to see how people serve dishes for different meals. It becomes clear that Chinese and Korean ceramics were part of the lives of regular people in the medieval provinces in Japan, which I think is exciting to think about it. It connects Japan to other parts of the world in a really clear way. But even beyond that, the discovery that there was a community of Chinese merchants who live just outside of the boundaries of Ichijôdani, along the Asuwa river, who were probably involved in importing Chinese goods into the capital city, from maritime trade. I just think is thrilling. One other piece of information I'll note is that the last, Lord of the Asakura was working on a deal to send an expedition to the Ryûkyû islands when Ichijôdani was destroyed. So he had the aspiration to connect Echizen more directly to neighboring countries and cultures. So very different, I think, than what we think of when we imagined a medieval Japan outside of Kyoto.

Allison: Right, that's incredible. That's Okinawa, basically, as we would think about it now.

Morgan: Yeah.

Allison: Was that about trade? Was that about culture? Was that just about general –

Morgan: Trade, I think.

Allison: Trade? Okay. That would make lots of sense. Wow. That's incredible. I know you don't like counterfactuals, but if you ever need to write a comic book or something, I think you could do a fun counterfactual with this.

Morgan: If the Asakura ruled Japan.

Allison: Yeah, exactly. Like had Germany won the war kind of thing. 

Morgan: There was no sense that they aspired to do so, so maybe it would have just been a big Federation. I don't know. 

Allison: I like to ask questions about, people's sense of the study, the field of Japanese studies. You have a very unique vantage point editing the Journal of Japanese studies. I'd love to hear any thoughts you have.

Morgan: Sure. I think the field of Japanese studies is at a turning point. That sounds sort of cliched, but, across the country, there is the sense that the study of modern foreign languages is kind of under siege with language enrollment levels falling – other than Korean, bless those Korean dramas.

Allison: Wonderful. K-pop.

Morgan: First we were threatened by Chinese. Now people are seeing Korean on the rise and this general kind of fear about the possibility that Japanese will be less studied, I think, exists at a lot of universities. I know enrollments are very robust at the University of Michigan and at UNC we're lucky to also have strong Japanese language enrollments, but there's that fear out there. But then at the same time, I don't know if this is a reaction to the kind of existential fears about the field, or if it's just the expansion of our collective horizons. People are so much more interested in the boundaries of Japan, of the movement of people across international borders, of the global context and the transregional exchanges. So that in some sense, Japanese Studies is not just about the study of Japan anymore. It's about the, the study of Japan and something else, or Japan in the context of something else. And I really think it's important that we make sense of that change. And we make sense of changes that are happening in language enrollments around the country and around the world without being defensive and without being kind of reactive. I think it's an opportunity to communicate interesting aspects of the study of Japan to a wider audience. Putting Japanese studies in a conversation with, more of the East Asian context and more of the global context and more of the trans regional flows, is a chance to bring this research that otherwise has been really pretty narrowly focused on our little world on our colleagues in Japan and our Anglophone Japanese studies community to a much broader audience. I don't think the importance of Japan is going to go away. The problems Japan is facing are global problems. I mean aging population is going to be a problem all over the Western world all over the global North and people will look to Japan for lessons. There's lots of good work for us to do as scholars and as teachers, that allows us to still identify as being in the field of Japanese studies, but maybe also allows us to, loosen up a little bit what that means and collaborate with an even more diverse range of people, which I'm really excited to do. And I think about this a lot in the context of the Journal of Japanese Studies. How does a journal that is defined by its focused on Japan grow and continue to, support the field while also recognizing that the field is changing? That's what we're trying to figure out now. 

Allison: Are there any books that you would recommend that you think our listeners maybe already know or should know? 

Morgan: Sure. Well, one of my favorite books in Japanese studies is, actually very narrowly focused a canonical Japanese studies book it's called The Culture of Civil War. It's by Mary Elizabeth Berry, who recently retired as a historian from UC Berkeley. The reason I think it's a remarkable book is that Barry writes extremely well. She's very argumentative. So there's lots to sink your teeth into. I disagree with a lot of what is in the book, but her writing makes you want to either agree or disagree in a way that is compelling and exciting. And I think the voice that she finds the authoritative, whip smart voice of the historian that demands that you pay attention is really powerful. I think one of the best ways for Japanese Studies to grow in all the ways that I described earlier is for us to avoid talking to ourselves. When she writes, she is talking to the field of history, she's talking to Europeanists to American historians, to her colleagues who work on Latin America and Africa. She wants everyone to pay attention to Japan because it really matters. And I love that determination, which in her case is matched by the writing skill, to make, for example, the Ônin War, which is what that's about this relatively obscure, late 15th century conflict to make it a global war I think is really, really impressive. That's something I aspire to do as well.

Allison: That sounds wonderful. I've read other works of hers.

 

Morgan: Good.

Allison: But I haven't read that. Yeah, that sounds wonderful. I'll be happy to look it up and check it out.

Morgan: Excellent.

Allison: Do you have a next project that you'd be willing to discuss with us? 

Morgan: Well, I actually have a funny story about this. Maybe it's a story I should be ashamed of, but I'm still making sense of it. I had long been thinking that I wanted to work for my next project on an environmental history of the Kamogawa, the river in Kyoto. I arrived here in Ann Arbor yesterday and asked around about what are the grad students working on and found out that there's a wonderful grad student writing an environmental history of the Kamogawa. That was a shock. [Allison laughs] But I'm lucky I have a job and, I'm not under pressure to publish quickly. So I'm going to step away from the project and find out how the core things that initially interested me, which is basically the landscape of Kyoto, the relationship between the environment and the built environment. I think there's work to be done there that doesn't center on the Kamogawa, on the river in Kyoto. So, yeah, this is the kind of ups and downs that we all experience in our researching lives. And I think so often we only talk about the successes.

Allison: That's true.

Morgan: And the projects that make it, but not the projects that get rejected or the projects that we abandoned or the great ideas that we give up because someone else is working on it. And who's going to do a better job than I would do. So it’s fine.

Allison: I had a guest speaker in my class yesterday who was talking, kept talking about the mistakes he made in field work. And whenever he did – he's an ethnographer - the students got really quiet and I realized, Oh yeah, they never get to hear about the mistakes.  I've noticed in my classes, people come into Japanese Studies for different reasons. It can be about music, often pop culture. I'm wondering if you also notice that in Japanese history courses or other courses you teach. What gets students interested? 

Morgan: Yeah, absolutely. I think in general students take Japanese history, Japanese culture, Japanese language classes, because they have an interest that comes from pop culture. Anime seems to be one of the biggest influences. That's great in lots of ways. I think there are negative side effects as well, but for me in history actually, more and more, I have students who know a surprising amount about Japanese history because of video games. There are video games set in the premodern age, especially the warring States period that students love and immerse themselves in. I had one student, a female student, who was playing, a dating sim game on her phone where all of the partners were Warring States warlords.

Allison: [laughs] Wait, this is spectacular.

Morgan: Yeah, it's amazing. She knew the names of all the people who came up in the lectures. [Allison laughs] And she was very smart and so she knew that the way the game ascribed certain romantic features to them was anachronistic or fantasy basically. But she knew, Oh, that that daimyô is more powerful than this other daimyô. And this tea master is really close to this particular warlord and it was great. I expect that will continue. I understand that there is a video game coming out soon. That's called "Ghosts of Tsushima," which is about the Mongol invasion of Japan. It's true that in the Mongols invaded Japan via the Island of Tsushima. It's about a samurai who escapes and wanders around the island trying to get revenge or something like that. I don't know. But suddenly we'll have a generation of students who knows about the Mongol invasions and is interested in that. So the ways in which these pop culture products can funnel students into our classrooms is a blessing, I think, but it produces particular burdens on us as teachers and scholars, which is really interesting.

Allison: I'm supervising an honors thesis right now written by a wonderful student named Zari Smith about localization and Japanese video games.

Morgan: It's a great topic.

Allison: It’s a great topic that I think there's lots of room for research on. And one of the things he's finding is that, as we might expect, in the eighties and the nineties, early nineties, Japanese makers, like Nintendo are taking out the Japanese elements. Sometimes to the point that the games become a little disjointed. They're like, "Oh, Americans wouldn't be able to do this." They also incidentally, at least a couple of times we'll take out the hardest level because like, Oh, Americans can't play this far, which is fun. Then later when Japan gets popular in a different kind of way in the US, they're leaving that stuff in and now even sometimes leaving it kind of unexplained. It sounds like your student, playing this otome game is especially smart and especially aware of what's going on, but it seems like the game makers are also cultivating that kind of knowledge about Japan or assuming that kind of knowledge to be able to do well in these games.

Morgan: Yeah. Well, I mean, now of course, fandom has reached such incredible heights that so many young people teach themselves Japanese and are reading. They want to experience anime or games in the original language. Sometimes they don't understand aspects of it because they're trying to get at the source without necessarily having the training. I mean, it's just, it's an amazing cultural encounter with localization often mediating, but not always. Fan translations and all this stuff that people are now working on is really rich. You can relate it to Heian period literature. You can relate it to, you know, Tokugawa era publishing, right? I mean the hybridity, the recycling of themes and characters, the tension between repetition and innovation. Those are good topics to study in all of these areas.

Allison: And the in-jokes. All these levels of in-jokes and fan subs and intertextuality and all these references. It's really, really quite remarkable. 

Morgan: I though one of the things I'll just comment on really briefly that takes us far away from the original subject, but is something I'm interested in is: for a long time, I thought that if a student was interested in Japan, they were by nature kind of global in their mindset and kind of open to diverse human experiences. But now I'm seeing – not so much in the classroom, more online – fans of Japanese culture, who look to Japan for reinforcement of their own, sometimes very narrow ideas about gender and about race and about identity. People who are opposed to immigration now are looking to Japan for inspiration in a way that I, I have to say, I find disturbing. People who want to see very traditional gender norms culturally inscribed, and preserved think that if they look only at certain anime or manga they're gonna find what they want. Even though of course, anime and manga are home to the most wonderful diversity of gender and sex and identity experiments. That's a big surprise to me. I did not see that coming I suppose that's what happens when the number of people who are interested in the culture just expands and expands, or maybe we need to do a better job as educators. I don't know, but the idea of a Japan nerd, or weeaboo or whatever the term is as being a kind of insult and of having really negative connotations in some contexts, is worrisome

Allison: And being really small minded.

Morgan: Yeah, exactly.

Allison: Racist and sexist and small-minded.

Morgan: Yeah. I mean, the old Japanophile comes to mind. You know the white student who wears geta clogs around campus and thinks it's okay to sort of constantly cosplay as though he or she was Japanese. That's a stereotype and an actual practice that I'm familiar with, but this is a more manipulative version of that. That is interesting. 

Allison: Yeah. And from my perspective, in terms of research, what I see happening sometimes, some of those people end up going to Japan and having a really skewed sense of what Japan is and what Japanese culture is. And then start having intimate relationships, which is when I enter the picture as a researcher. And so when those relationships go bad, they go really bad.

Morgan: Yeah.

Allison: Anyway, on that happy note. [Morgan laughs]

Morgan: Thank you so much.

Allison: Thank you so much for your time.

Allison: Thanks for listening to this episode of Michigan Talks Japan. If you're interested, please check out other episodes, which are available where you found this one and through all podcasting platforms. We're always interested in your reactions or comments, so please reach out on facebook or twitter @umcjs. I want to thank the Center for Japanese Studies and Kiyo Tsutsui for green-lighting the project, the Shapiro Design Lab staff, and our listeners. Thanks also to Reggie Jackson for our theme song and David Merchant for IT support. This podcast was co-produced by Robin Griffin, Justin Schell, and myself, and edited by Robin Griffin and Justin Schell. It was recorded in the Shapiro Library’s Design Lab in Ann Arbor before the Covid-19 restrictions. I’m Allison Alexy and I hope you’ll join us for the next episode, a conversation with Dr. Charlotte Eubanks.