The frayed edges of modern Japan


Special To The Japan Times

In the Edo Period (1603-1868) and the years that followed, Japan made strenuous efforts to bring together its patchwork of feudal regions into a strongly centralized state with a unified culture. Accordingly, the nation now is one of the most homogenous in the world. But there are a couple of places where this strongly mono-cultural model begins to fray.

One is Okinawa, where there is a somewhat different identity, and the other is Hokkaido, where there are still some traces of the indigenous Ainu people and their culture. While recognizing these different ethnic areas could be problematic — leading to separatism, for example — completely ignoring them is not an option, so it is only fitting that efforts to acknowledge them are made. The exhibition “Ishuretsuzo, the Image of Ezo: Tracing Persons, Things and the World” at the National Museum of Japanese History — and from Feb. 25 at the National Museum of Ethnology in Osaka — should be viewed in these terms.

Significantly, the exhibition focuses on the Ainu not as a separate and independent culture but rather as symbiotic allies and auxiliaries of the Japanese. The curation was built around the Ishuretsuzo, a series of portraits of Ainu chieftains, painted by Hakyo Kakizaki (1764-1826), a samurai retainer of the Matsumae clan, who occupied the southern part of Hokkaido to defend the border.

Originally there were 12 portraits, painted in 1790, depicting high-ranking Ainu allies of the clan, with one of the portraits being of a woman, noticeable by her lack of a long beard and her tattooed lips.

These surprisingly skillful works were painted in the aftermath of the Menashi-Kunashir War of 1789, when Ainu attacks on Japanese tradesmen and colonists in the northeastern part of the island led to retaliation by the Matsumae clan and their Ainu allies. The whereabouts of the paintings was unknown, until 1984 when 11 of the works were rediscovered at the Besancon Museum of Fine Arts and Archaeology in eastern France.

These 11 paintings are supplemented by garments and objects, some of which have also been depicted in the pictures, as well as old maps and other artworks showing scenes from Ezo, as Hokkaido was then known. The most impressive item on display is an expansive folding screen from 1741, showing in great detail the town of Matsumae, the headquarters of the eponymous clan. Among the small figures that can be discerned are a group of Ainu visiting the town.

It seems clear from looking at this screen, Kakizaki’s works and the details of the Menashi-Kunashir War, that the Japanese and Ainu were in frequent contact and occupied different economic positions, not separate and exclusive spaces. The Ainu tended to focus on hunting and fur-trapping — the exhibition includes a very large sea otter rug — while the Japanese were traders and farmers.

This was a period when Japan was closed to the rest of the world, except for a strictly controlled stream of trade through Nagasaki. But Ezo’s distance from the capital and its frontier conditions appears to have had a liberalizing effect on trade, with Hokkaido serving as something of a back door to Japan.

This is reflected in Kakizaki’s paintings, which show the Ainu chieftains wearing an outlandish mixture of Chinese, Japanese and even European garments. It is almost as if Ezo was a colder version of Tatooine, the anarchic trading planet in the “Star Wars” movies, with the more powerful Ainu chieftains being particularly colorful characters.

Although tensions occasionally flared up, as in the Menashi-Kunashir War, the mutual benefits for Japanese and Ainu meant that there was good reason for them to get along together.

It is possible to see Kakizaki’s paintings as examples of ethnographic art and depictions of the alien “other.” Attention could be drawn to the evident fascination with which he depicted the hairiness of his subjects and their swaggering and eclectic sense of fashion.

But a more fair-minded appraisal would be to draw attention to the painter’s general realism — his lack of ethnic exaggeration and exoticism. These are works by someone who seems to have been truly familiar with the Ainu people, and it shows. Although Kakizaki’s paintings represent a Japanocentric view of the Ainu, it is one that is nevertheless genuine, sensitive and artistically sympathetic.

In addition to the Ishuretsuzo exhibition, there is much else to enjoy at the museum. It has a number of other galleries, dealing with various aspects of Japanese history and modern life, including a display focusing on contemporary Ainu culture.

The National Museum of Japanese History is located in the castle town of Sakura in Chiba, about an hour’s train ride from central Tokyo. The town is also home to a number of other museums, including the Kawamura Memorial Museum of Art, making it an interesting day trip.

“Ishuretsuzo, the Image of Ezo: Tracing Persons, Things and the World” at the National Museum of Japanese History runs until Feb. 7; 9:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. ¥420. Closed Mon. and Feb. 1.