The Lost Samurai

First they served their masters and themselves.
Then they served their constructors.
Now they serve their deconstructors and reconstructors.

By William Wetherall

The battles being fought in their name are supremely ideological -- which is nothing new in public exhibits of "cultural" artifacts.

Samurai are now featured in Lords of the Samurai, an exhibit running from 12 June to 20 September 2009 at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco.

The principal exhibition publication is Lords of the Samurai: The Legacy of a Daimyo Family, by Yoko Woodson and others. The work is prefaced by Hosokawa Morikawa and features an extended essay by Thomas Cleary.

Hosokawa wrote the preface because the "family" and its "legacy" are his own. The exhibit and book feature over 160 items from Hosokawa family collections on loan from Tokyo and Kumamoto museums.

Hosokawa legacy

Hosokawa Morihiro was Japan's prime minister from August 1993 to April 1994. He began his political career as a member of the House of Councilors from Kumamoto, served two terms as governor of Kumamoto, left the Liberal Democratic Part to join a new party, returned to the Diet as a House of Representatives member from a Kumamoto constituency, and found himself the head of a coalition government. He retired from politics as a member of the Democratic Party of Japan, which is now positioned to effect a "regime change" in the country.

A succession of Hosokawa's ancestors were daimyo of the Kumamoto domain and then governors of Kumamoto prefecture. He became the head of the main branch of the family in 2005 when his father died.

Any bookstore in Japan is likely to have from one to several works by or about Hosokawa, including glossy mooks of him at work at a potter's wheel on the family estate in Kumamoto and examples of his wares. He is a study of the demeanor and manners that were expected of the nobility, which daimyo and other higher-ranking members of the buge caste became when they lost their "bu" after the start of the Meiji era in 1868 -- not so long ago.

That Hosokawa participated in the making of his family history the theme of a major exhibit by a museum like the Asian is a mark of his character as a diplomat and artist whose works have been widely exhibited in Japan and also in Europe. In the delicate world of museum politics, there is no room for ideological provocation in the telling of his family history.

Being in Japan, I have not been able to take in the real, non-virtual samurai exhibition. My impression, though, is that it is studiously low-key.

The Asian survives in a field that is strewn with high-societal and low-political landmines. While capable of being very trendy in its public presentations of art and art history, it leaves the more provocative agendas to its critics -- such as the person or people behind an underground website that is mocking the Asian.

What's in a name?

Asian Art Museum of San Francisco is the name of the website that mounts the exhibit called Lord of the Samurai. The URL of its website is www.asianart.org.

Asians Art Museum of San Francisco is the name of a counter-museum which emulates the Asian while presenting an alternative exhibit called Lord It's the Samurai. The URL of its website is www.asiansart.org.

The counter-museum's slogans speak for themselves.

Where Asian Still Means Oriental
Your Oriental Fantasies, Our Bottom Line
Orientalisms 'R Us

This is both tongue-in-cheek winking by devoted Saidists at the Asian's stately and staid Hosokawa exhibition -- and a dead serious critique of the overt and covert Orientalism they feel continues to thrive in mainstream museums.

The "asianart.org" domain was created on 10 May 2001 and expires on 1 July 2017 -- by which time the museum will renew its registration. The domain's owner and administrator are fully disclosed on the website of its registrar.

The contact name is James Horio, the Asian's Director of Information Technology. The domain's name server is affiliated with pbi.net of the Pacific Bell Internet family.

The Asian was originally in a wing of the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum in Golden Gate Park. It closed there on 7 October 2001, and reopened on 20 March 2003 at its present home -- the retrofitted and renovated building that, until then, had housed the main branch of the San Francisco Public Library -- prime real estate in the city's highly accessible Civic Center.

San Francisco acquired the Avery Brundage collection of Asian art on the condition that it build a museum to house it. The city issued a bond in 1960 and the museum was opened on 10 June 1966 as a wing of the de Young. The Center for Asian Art and Culture was renamed the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco in 1973.

I was last there to see the "Exhibition of Archaeological Finds of the People's Republic of China" in 1975, which opened a month before I came to Japan to begin my doctoral research, which embraced the theme of "following in death" in early Japan, Korea, China, and elsewhere. The exhibit celebrated the progress in US-PRC relations after the Nixon-Mao detente in 1972.

A few years ago, on a family visit to the city of my birth, during which we explored City Hall, I found myself in the secretarial office next to the mayor's chambers. Anyone who gets through ground floor security can walk into the room. Its windows directly overlook Civic Center Park and offer a clear view of the Asian, and the Dining Terrace outside its Cafe Asian on the sunnier south side of the building -- which faces the new public library.

I wanted to go through the Asian, but we had spent too much time in the library so I managed only to peak in its lobby. I did, however, imagine a short story that began with someone laying binoculars on the mayor's window while sipping a latte on the cafe terrace.

Cloaks and daggers

The "asiansart.org" domain is registered to an administrator with a PO box address in Cocoa, Florida. The only contact name revealed on the website of its registrar is "c/o RespectMyPrivacy, LLC" -- which means the registrant is cloaking his or her identity using the services of this third-party "limited liability company".

The domain was created on 9 August 2009 and will expire in one year if the owner decides not to renew its registration. Its name servers are affiliated with nearlyfreespeech.net (NFSN).

Asian Art Museum hopes to draw walk-in visitors who will pay the price of admission and patronize its store and cafe. Its main catchment is the larger San Francisco area. Its secondary catchments include North American metropolises from which the wealthier can jaunt into the City by the Bay for two or three days of extra-planetary experience -- and the world at large, which feeds the city a constant flow of tourists.

Asians Art Museum targets only net denizens, and pitches its content mainly to visitors who will appreciate its satirical, lampoonish, parodic, totally funky multiculturalist and postcolonial critique.

Both websites reach out to the FaceBook, Twitter, and YouTube worlds in hopes of getting as many hits as possible. The gadget-savvy, wireless, un-united social-networkers of the world seem doomed to inherit the earth.

Oriental, Asian, Asians

Obama said a pig with lipstick is still a pig. Some people laughed. Others were enraged.

"Asian" is no better than "Oriental" if it represents the same mindset. "Asians" may appear to champion diversity, but a box is still a box.

The day may come when "Asians" and "Westerners" will fall by the wayside as something more fashionable comes charging down the yellow brick road.

2 September 2009