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Q&A With Japan Expert James Ketelaar

By | April 8, 2010
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Temple in Asakusa, Tokyo

 

Smithsonian Journeys: After living in Japan for ten years, what is your favorite lasting impression?

James Ketelaar: (Laughs) As you might imagine, there are really too many impressions to select only one. I first went to Japan when I was 18 years old as a junior in college and thus was full of enthusiasm and energy. I recall many 20 hour days as I ran around exploring Tokyo and environs. The last year I was in Japan (2008-09), I served as the Resident Director of an undergraduate program in Kyoto working with students who were very much like me, 30 plus years ago. This is one way to stay young, at least in heart (as I admittedly do not stay up as late as I used to)!

Here are a few snapshots of lasting impressions from over the years, in no particular order: waking at 4 in the morning to complete the climb to the top of Mt. Fujii and then, after the sunrise, running down through snow fields on its sides; watching the evening sun come through rice-papered windows inside a Zen meditation hall on the Japan sea coast; flying into Hokkaidô, the northern island in the winter and realizing how much the topography looked like the upper mid-west of the United States; talking with truck drivers on an overnight ferry heading to Kyûshû and learning about their lives and, in one case, how important ground fish was for fertilizer and the local economy; walking into a favorite restaurant and being greeted with the warm smile of recognition and looking forward to a great meal with a great conversation with the owners, and those sitting nearby...

Q. Our travelers will visit famous Shinto shrines as well as Buddhist temples. In fact, in many places they coexist next door to each other. Why is this? And is there any special protocol to observe when visiting?

A. This is one of the main areas of my research, writing, and teaching. In fact, I just led a 3 hour seminar on this topic here at the University of Chicago. A (very) short reply here is that Shinto and Buddhism have always been deeply intertwined. The late 19th Century attempt to create two distinct threads or traditions was only partially successful. In fact, the close relation of Shinto/Buddhism proves much more of a difficult issue for observers who expect these to be distinct religious traditions. This being said, some places are indeed clearly "Shinto" and others clearly "Buddhist." One enjoyable aspect of our travel across the country will be our opportunity to visit the subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) combinations of how the gods and the Buddhas live and work closely together in the midst of this very modern world.

In terms of visiting sacred or religious cities in Japan, one need not be overly concerned about protocol beyond common sense ideas of decorum. Photos are generally allowed (more in shrines/temples than in museums in fact), and there are no requirements such as head scarves or long sleeves as can be found in other Buddhist countries, for example. Most popular sites are also active tourist destinations for the local population, and as such, are well planned to handle a wide array of visitors.

Q. The evolution of Samurai culture began as long ago as the tenth century. Technically, the age of the Samurai passed with the Japanese transition from a feudal to an industrial society, yet the "romance" of the Samurai has lived on, captured, for instance, in the enchanted films of Akira Kurosawa. How else do the Samurai live on?

A. We will have the opportunity to visit several samurai-specific locations on this trip, enjoying gardens, castles and cultural practices invented, enjoyed and perfected by this cultural elite. Thus, in terms of material culture and art forms, quite a bit of what is currently identified as distinctly "Japanese" can in one form or another be traced to periods of samurai rule. Indeed, excepting some decidedly popular forms of religion, art, music, painting, and literature, most things one might imagine as "Japanese" will find a samurai in some prominent place in its history: from tatami mats and tea ceremony, to ink brush painting and gardens, temple or villa construction to city planning and economic structures, all find traces here. There are also many very modern re-imagined samurai traces that can be found in the ubiquitous consumption of video games, animated films and inter-net worlds with samurai themes. And of course, let us not forget those who fail the university entrance exams or who are laid off from work and who then call themselves rônin: of masterless samurai!

Q. Imposing Mt. Fujii lies at the intersection of three tectonic plates, yet hasn't erupted in 300 years. Can you tell us more about this Japanese icon?

A. I truly hope we have clear skies when we journey to Mt. Fujii! I have passed by dozens and dozens of times and was only able to "feel its presence," as it were, behind the clouds. Its drama and elegance is hard to overestimate. My favorite memory of Mt. Fuji (other than running down its sides one snowy November afternoon) was to see it from the beach in Kamakura, when it looked as if it were on fire -- blazing crimson and gold in the late afternoon sun. Obviously I have been impressed by this volcano!

It is also a religious site as you may know, and has long been considered itself a kami, or divine being. There is a Shinto/Buddhist sect dedicated to its worship and pilgrims ascend it by the hundreds of thousands every year. There are also a few "living saints" who had themselves buried alive inside the mountain in order to join the absolute through the power of this manifest deity. In geographic terms it is considered a very stable mountain now -- the so-called "ring of fire" that extends around the Pacific Ocean included many "hot spots in Japan," but Mt. Fujii is on a location that, at least for now, is very much at rest.

Q. Kyoto, the imperial city until the mid 19th century, was spared most bombing during WWII, although it suffered its share of wars and even earthquakes during its eleven centuries as the imperial capital. Today, Kyoto has 37 universities, many of them top tier. And this remarkable city has become the center of Japan's TV and movie industry. Has Kyoto managed to preserve the best of its long and storied past? And how did it become the center of Japan's prodigious movie and TV industry?

A. Intriguingly, in the 19th Century, Kyoto  actively positioned itself as the leading *modern* city in Japan. When the Imperial Household formally moved to Edo/Tokyo in 1868, the population of Kyoto shrank from around a million to only several hundred thousands. The city leaders then began an aggressive series of urban renewal projects that pushed Kyoto to the forefront of the modernization boom. It was the first city with centralized fresh water and sewer systems, the first city with an electrical grid for all residents, and the first city with electric street cars. Telephones and other modern conveniences quickly followed. Around the turn of the century, though, it was clear that Kyoto could not compete with the industrial or commercial might of Tokyo and nearby Osaka. It was from around this point that Kyoto then started to re-constitute itself as the bastion of traditional culture. The creation of the modern festivals, the preservation of temples and restrictions on development during this period began a very successful campaign such that now, in many real ways, to see "Japan" one simply must see "Kyoto."

In terms of the movie industry, the first studios were located in Kyoto/Osaka to be in proximity of the major theatrical companies. Most actors initially came from the stage and a great deal of the early films were also completed on location in the area. In recent years, many of the televised and popular period-films are still filmed on studio lots in the Kyoto area.

Q. Japanese tea ceremony had its beginnings with tea tastings in the 13th century. Is there one basic procedure, or has it evolved into a variety of ceremonies for different purposes or circumstances? Does tea ceremony live today in 21st century Japanese society?

A. The tea ceremony itself was developed as a social art in the 16th century. Since that time, it has, along with the related arts of calligraphy, flower arranging and painting (for display in the alcove), pottery and iron work (for use as bowls and implements), textile weaving and dying (for clothes as well as implements) and of course, architecture and garden construction (for the site itself) have all expanded into distinct schools and styles. While the "basic procedure" is "simply" boiling water, infusing it with powdered tea and then sharing it with others, the details and nuances have reached incredibly specific forms. In some areas, tea as ceremony is reserved for the cultural elite, but this being said, it is also impressive to see the number of people who are skilled in and practice this at an everyday level. Mini, casual or informal tea experiences are available at many locations which provide accessible and enjoyable versions of this distinctive practice for the uninitiated.

Q. Ritual seems to permeate Japanese history and contemporary Japanese culture. In your study of the possibilities of emotion in Japanese history, how does the evolution of ritual factor in?

A. Excellent question! Ritual in general is used as a means to regularize profound relationships or to channel experiences of an often overwhelming sort. The marriage ceremony or different religious rituals or funerals are good examples here. What often happens with emotions is that when they cannot be channeled or expressed in socially recognizable or appropriate forms, they serve as exemplars of change, of excess, of meanings beyond the coded norms.

In Japanese history, these sorts of emotional expansions are often described as having appeared in dreams, or through oracles or as revelations. What I am wondering is whether one can in fact think of emotion as a historical category. We tend to think of emotion as an experience of the immediate, living world; are these experiences things that historians can work with?

How does ritual figure in your life? Share below.

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James Ketelaar

James Ketelaar is Professor in History and East Asian Languages and Civilizations and past Director of the Center for East Asian Studies at the University of Chicago, where he lectures on Japanese history, religion, film and philosophy. James lived in Japan for 10 years, primarily residing in Kyoto, and has conducted extensive research on Japanese culture and tradition.

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