Dec 23, 2008

Better Than Palanquins

Palanquins are silly. Sillier even than the most outsized of SUVs. As much as one can display conspicuous consumption today with a stupidly large car, that pales in comparison to being carted around by two or more humans whilst inside a gold box. And, it was precisely these monstrosities of wealth that a friend and I were looking at this weekend, at a special exhibit at the Edo Tokyo Museum.

The whole display was a showcase of indulgence. What we were looking at were the playthings for the very rich, objects that only a sliver of the population actually utilized. I pointed this out to my friend and she said, "Yes, but the rich were the ones who made all the decisions and started all of the wars." I can't really argue with that. But still, looking at playthings and status symbols is not wholly satisfying. This is not to say that I didn't enjoy them- I did. Just that looking at such a tiny sliver privileged life for so long tends to provoke a bit of irritation at the decadence.

One amusing thing, though- towards the end of the palanquin exhibit, there was a showcase full of objects that belonged to a princess whose things were on display. Amongst them were a laquerware basin and towel rack which looked like, well, a basin and towel rack. There were also helpful little labels that said "basin" and "towel rack" in English. Nevertheless, this older woman decided to help us out by pointing at the objects, and mime washing one's face and using a towel. This was really rather endearing, her making sure that we foreigners understood what the objects were. On the other hand, presuming that we were ignorant of such basic objects such as a basin was a bit patronizing. It was sort of sweet of her, nonetheless.

We ventured out of the palanquin exhibit, into and through a gift shop selling bowls for over ten thousand yen, and up into the normal exhibition hall wherein I lots of stuff far more interesting that the feudal equivalent of SUVs resided.

Like books. Books that were printed with old style woodblock presses, books bound together with strings and lavishly decorated on the covers and inside with all manner of illustrations. These were the publishing products of a feudal society and a direct descendant of mass media. Also impressive were the woodblocks- mass produced bits of adornment and entertainment, made in great numbers and sold to the public. There was likewise a whole exhibit about coinage and currency, of which there were apparently several kinds in the Edo era, in addition to using rice as a currency. I wondered how inflation worked back then, and at what rates the different currencies were transferable to each other.

These things, books, prints and coins, were about ideas and communication, commerce and the popular sentiment of a place. Seeing these old examples of popular culture, the direct descendants of manga, newspapers, and publishing houses, inspired me far more than any relic of a gilded, idle life. These things were products of a vibrant society, not just a tiny minority.

The next day I got into an IM conversation with an old friend of mine, and he mentioned that he'd been reading up on the Heian period, and would have loved to have been a noble back then. I mentioned that I was far more interested in Japan's modern era, and studying the rapid rate of modernization in the Meiji period could be instructive with regards to the speedy modernization happening now in other parts of the world. He replied with something about the importance of beauty and poetry and whatnot.

I can't dispute that such things- beauty, poetry, adornment- are nice. I do, after all, rather like seeing temples, shrines, screens, and statuary, things which are hardly practical in the strictest sense. Yet, I want to look at history with a practical, not just an aesthetic eye. I want to see how problems were solved, how goals were persued, how technology was applied, how organizations were administed, and what the result of it all was. A book, after all, is just a book. But seeing the Edo era prints called into mind an entire infrastructure that would have to exist to sustain such things. If books were popular enough to be printed and sold, then that means literacy was widespread. It also means that the economic and agricultural structure of society (even though it's often called "feudal") had to be efficient enough to support sizable (albeit, still minority) non-agrarian specialist population. That is highly cool to find out about.

For better or worse, I've also started thinking about broad-based societal phenomenon in a professionally curious way. As I continue to review political science, I'm more and more seeing myself as someone who will be entangled with the infrastructure and workings of societies. And that means knowing about industry, media, and commerce. These things are sizable and engaging, and soon I'm hoping to see such things in more than just an amateur fashion.

1 comment:

Anthony said...

I wanted to see the palanquin exhibit... but it didn't begin until just after I was going to leave. Pity. They did have an exhibit of contemporary crafted swords though.