A Week in the Old City

A December sunrise from the rooftop of the New Imperial Hotel, Jerusalem.

December 2019 feels so distant that it might as well be a fever dream than an actual, lived, moment in time. The abrupt changes to our everyday lives in the last weeks, brought on by the global COVID-19 pandemic, ensure that 2020 will be a year that serves as a signpost in our lives.

I yearn to be around other people, strangers preferred. I yearn to be amongst the food, amongst the stores. I even want to experience the things that, not too long ago, used to annoy my fragile senses. Boorish finance guy holding a conference call from the table opposite me in the coffee shop? Today, I’d buy him a latte and tell him to carry on, enthralled in his affectless declaration that his personal trainer is going to kick his ass this weekend.

Perhaps also like other people, I’ve been reflecting on recent travel and the life before the Age of Pandemic. Financial Times travel writer Sophy Roberts recently reflected on travel she’d done years ago, at a time when she, like so many of us, took easy global mobility for granted (“Wish I were Here: Edmund Hillary’s ‘Happy House’,” April 9, 2020). 

Her article has me thinking about the trip I took to Israel in December to attend a conference organized by the Israeli Association for Japanese Studies and held at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The conference schedule coincided with the end of the fall semester, which is admittedly a difficult time to add extra work outside of the classroom. But it also seemed too good to pass up, this great opportunity to meet other Japan scholars with whom I might not normally get to see at the typical Asian studies conferences I attend in North America and Japan.

Prior to the trip, I’d only seen Israel from afar. In 2012 and I participated in a critical theory seminar organized by the University of California and held at the American University of Beirut. The theme of the ten-day seminar was “spaces of protest,” an appropriate topic given the ongoing Arab Spring uprisings and the civil war in neighboring Syria, then only in its first year. I was presenting on protests against American bases in Japan and learning a great deal from many scholars of the Middle East and beyond who participated and organized. On one of our excursions we took a bus to Lebanon’s southern border with Israel, the UN Blue Zone. I chatted with a jovial Indonesian UN peacekeeper who was nearing the end of his tour and had only the nicest things to say about his current posting. On the other side of the Blue Line, the occupied Golan Heights, IDF hummers on patrol barreled down dirt roads. We could see Israeli settlements in the distance, along with recently planted olive groves that dotted the landscape. 

Al Aqsa, December 2019

The opportunity to see Israel more closely was a welcomed one. I booked a room at the New Imperial Hotel, within the walls of the Old City and a stone’s throw from Jaffa Gate and the Tower of David. The Hebrew University, I decided, was close enough to walk to from the hotel (30-40 mins), which would also allow me walk through the Palestinian neighborhood of Wadi al-Joz twice a day. 

The New Imperial Hotel, as seen from Jaffa Gate.

Organized under the theme of “Seven Decades of Japanese Democracy: Challenges and Strengths,” the conference was, as expected, a wonderful gathering of scholars from Israel,  Europe, and beyond. I presented on anti-base protest in Tokyo’s 1950s and 1960s, part of my current book project on the history of anti-base protest throughout postwar Japan. 

Outside of the conference, I spent most of the first day at Yad Vashem, Israel’s holocaust museum, which was a powerful experience. One of the highlights of my trip was a “dual narrative”walking tour through the Old City with a local company, Medji Tours. Simultaneously guided by Palestinian and Israeli guides, the tour highlights of many of the sites central to the intersecting faiths in Jerusalem: Al Aqsa Mosque, the Western Wall, Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and the Cathedral of St. James. We explored the layered and contested historical narratives, from pre-Roman eras through the present. Other members of the tour group included the Swiss techie, who was also traveling solo and had only a couple of days to visit, and the Canadian businessman who teased said Swiss techie on his French. A significant number of our small group included American Jews who lived in Israel part time and kept apartments in Tel Aviv. Others were themselves non-Arab tour guides in Israel who wanted to deepen their own understanding of the ways in which Arabs understand the Old City. 

Medji tour guides and tourists at the Tower of David.
The immense and cavernous Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built atop the site where Christians believe Jesus was crucified, buried, and resurrected. Thanks to the current global pandemic, the church was recently closed for the first time since the Black Death of 1349.
A vendor selling ka-ak al quds, a popular morning purchase for many Palestinians. I bought some of this savory bread, layered with sesame seeds, to snack on during my walk to campus. This vendor was just across from Damascus Gate. Photo taken with my old school Olympus 35ED film camera.
Damascus Gate

Outside of some delightful meals with fellow conference participants, I spent most evenings on my own, savoring the funky bars and restaurants in Jerusalem and chatting with young Israelis, who turned me on to the music of Daniela Spector and uniformly loathed Benjamin Netanyahu. If I go back, I’ll definitely spend more time at the bustling Mahane Yehuda Market and get another bite and beer at the Dwiny Pita Bar. Cheers to new conference friends Yiftach Hargil (Heidelberg University) and Beata Bochorodycz (Adam Mickiewicz University, Poland) for the fun.

Me, Yiftach Hargil (Heidelberg University), and Beata Bochorodycz (Adam Mickiewicz University, Poland) enjoying a post-conference dinner.
Dwiny Pita Bar. Olympus 35ED film camera.

I didn’t have a lot of expectations of Israel or Jerusalem prior to the visit. As part of my prior trip to Lebanon I had also visited the longstanding Palestinian refugee camps in Beirut’s suburbs and was able to experience, in a small way, the impact of Zionism in Palestine. I knew that there were deep links between many Americans and the country, though I didn’t recognize them so clearly (for some reason I was surprised I could take daily direct flights from SFO to Tel Aviv). Once I visited, as someone from the settler-colonial and deeply militarized US, the settler-colonial and deeply militarized Israel felt familiar.

A jazz band energizes the sidewalk outside of a wine bar near Yafo Center. The manager of the neighboring hotel kept asking the wine bar owner to keep it down. Repeated requests were thankfully ignored. Olympus 35ED film camera.
Vendors along the Via Dolorosa, the path along which Christians believe Jesus walked to crucifixion.

The next trip to Israel will, I hope, let me engage with scholars at predominantly Palestinian universities and other centers of historical inquiry. Any recommendations for folks I should contact would be greatly appreciated!

Remembering Shuri Castle 首里城を振り返る

NHK News is reporting that Shuri Castle has apparently been nearly completely destroyed by a fire in the early morning hours of October 31. The cause is still unknown. A Japanese National Treasure and a UN World Heritage Site, the castle was a Ryukyuan royal palace that dates back 500 years. Sadly, the castle was also laid waste in the last century during the Battle of Okinawa.

Below, a few photos from a trip I took to the castle with the Okinawa Memories Initiative during the summer of 2018. The site is a spread across beautiful grounds that offer expansive views of Naha and beyond, making it a popular spot for tourists.

When Notre Dame Cathedral was partially destroyed by fire earlier this year, it was reported that $1 billion had been donated for repair. Let’s hope that this tragedy might inspire similar generosity for Shuri Castle.

Shureimon, the main entry gate into the castle grounds. August 4, 2018.
The facade of the main hall, which seemed to have a magical ability to be under renovation every time I’ve ever visited. August 4, 2018.
The view from the castle grounds looking north, over the Kyukeimon Gate. Beyond the gate is the Okinawa Prefectural University of Art. August 4, 2018.
Visitors stroll passed the Suimui Utaki (首里森御嶽), a sacred space near the entrance of the inner palace. August 4, 2018.

Lunch at an Okinawan Roadside Cafe: Yanbaru Yokocho やんばる横町

Okinawa’s Minatogawa Stateside Town 港川ステイツサイドタウン

The fashionable Minatogawa Stateside Town sits just outside of Camp Kinser. Previously military housing for off-base contractors, the neighborhood has been slowly winnowed by private development and today hosts a small collection of boutique restaurants and shops ($300 handmade jeans, anyone?). As with other parts of Okinawa, many of the tourists you see at Stateside Town are from mainland Japan and other parts of Asia.

Proots Local Goods Store, July 14, 2019
July 14, 2019
Designed storm shutters, July 14, 2019
Some of the houses have not been converted to businesses. July 14, 2019

Bodies and Structures: Deep Mapping East Asian History

My humble website has been painfully neglected for more moons than I care to count. As with so many other early career academics, I initially built the site as a way to build my online presence (my “brand” *gag*, as they say) as I fumbled around the academic job market. For any graduate students or job applicants who are considering creating their own websites, I think it was helpful. I was able to share things I was doing that might not have translated as clearly or personably in typical job application material.

I’m now happily working at California State University, Monterey Bay. As I settle into my new university, a young public institution that sprouts out of the militarized ruins of the shuttered Fort Ord, I’m excited to expand my teaching into Japanese studies more broadly. I’m also thinking about how my website should evolve. There are quite a few scholars who have modeled how to make their interesting websites relevant and fun for people beyond potential employers. I hope to follow their leads.

To that end, I wanted to share a quick post about an exciting project that I’ve been collaborating with since 2017. My involvement began with a workshop at UC Santa Barbara that year, and has continuing through the implementation of the first phase of Bodies and Structures: Deep Mapping East Asian Historyan ongoing digital collaboration between historians working within multiple spacial and temporal frameworks. My contribution is centered on the Gail Project photos from The Okinawa Memories Initiative. Below, please see the H-Net announcement for the project. You’ll see links to the individual modules, along with ways in which people can propose their own. I really recommend that people read project co-directors Kate McDonald’s (UC Santa Barbara) and David Ambaras’ (North Carolina State University) overview essay of the project, which is a lucid synopsis of the field of critical geography and an important avenue into understanding spatial methodologies. Cheers to Kate and David for inviting me to participate!

Screengrab from my module for Bodies and Structures: Deep Mapping East Asian History.
Screengrab from the Tag Map, one of four possible “entry points” for the project.
Screengrab from the geotagged map, showing some of the places referenced in the various overlapping modules.

Official Announcement

We are pleased to announce the release of Bodies and Structures: Deep-mapping Modern East Asian History 1.0(http://scalar.chass.ncsu.edu/bodies-and-structures). Bodies and Structures is a platform for researching and teaching spatial histories of East Asia and the larger worlds of which they were a part. Built using the open-source platform Scalar, the site combines individually-authored, media-rich content modules with conceptual maps and visualizations, which reveal thematic, historical, and geographic connections between the modules. Each module is based around a translated primary source or sources. These translations are also included in the site.

Bodies and Structures 1.0 focuses on early to mid-twentieth century Japan and East Asia shaped by Japanese imperialism. The modules tell spatial stories about:

  • colonial political activists;
  • interethnic intimacies and regional migration;
  • department stores and empire;
  • the transformative potential of the modern drugstore;
  • Chinese settlement on the Mongolian frontier;
  • the firebombing of Tokyo; and,
  • the photographic eye of an American army dentist in occupied Okinawa.

We invite you and your students to use these modules and their interconnections to analyze how boundary-making and mobility inform each other; how spatially-constituted ideas of progress or difference have taken shape in different locales; and how events and actors construct and reconstruct places and their meanings within shifting imperial contexts. Above all, we invite you to explore, get lost, and find your own pathways through the materials.

Modules and Contributors

“What We’re Doing (Overview Essay)” (David R. Ambaras and Kate McDonald)

“Border Controls, Migrant Networks, and People out of Place between Japan and China” (David R. Ambaras)

“Mitsukoshi: Consuming Places” (Noriko Aso)

“Place Annihilation” (David Fedman)

“Cai Peihuo’s Inner Territory” (Kate McDonald)

“The Okinawa Memories Initiative” (Dustin Wright)

“Xing An: A Contested Borderland” (Shellen X. Wu)

“The Drugstore as Contact Zone” (Timothy Yang)

Useful Guides

How to Use This Site

Guide to Using Bodies and Structures for Student Research Projects

Sample Visualizations

Going Forward

We are now working on Bodies and Structures 2.0. This version will expand the geo-historical scope to introduce materials from late-Qing and Republican-era China, Vietnam, and Korea, as well as additional materials on Japan and its maritime frontiers, and incorporate new tools for analyzing the site’s materials. Look for more information in Summer 2019.

Follow Bodies and Structures on social media

Twitter: @bodiesandstruct

Facebook: https://fb.me/bodiesandstructures

We Want to Hear from You

Please share your feedback with us at bodiesandstructures@gmail.com.

Or get in touch with us to propose a module!

Fall Update (see you soon, Tokyo)

I’ve always heard that fall is the season for New England and, so far, I haven’t been disappointed. My stint at Connecticut College has given me the opportunity to take full advantage of this beautiful southeastern corner of the state. For this west coast transplant, I’m partly relishing the crisp days and partly feeling guilty as California blisters from historic heat and deadly wildfires.

A late October storm sweeps in from the Long Island Sound and looms over New London.

The shorter days and cooler nights have helped me feel a bit more academically productive (props to Japanese Breakfast’s dreamy new album, which has helped to breathe life into otherwise quiet nights of writing and course prep).

I have an article on the Sunagawa Struggle in the forthcoming special edition of The Sixties: A Journal of History, Politics, and Culture. Friend and fellow modern Japan historian, Chelsea Szendi Schieder of Meiji University, pulled together this special issue, which focuses on collaborative social movements between Japan and the U.S. (“other transpacific alliances”). Here’s the abstract to my piece:

The Sunagawa Struggle, a massive anti-US base protest in the suburbs of western Tokyo, had lasting impacts not only on the US–Japan security alliance, but also on the people who participated on both sides of the protest lines. This article traces the lives of two people who were profoundly changed by their experiences of the anti-base movement in Japan: Dennis Banks, a young airman who was tasked with guarding the base and would later help found the American Indian Movement; and Sunagawa protestor Shimada Seisaku, who spent a career as a Tachikawa city councilperson and remained committed to anti-base activism.

If you’d like to read it but don’t have institutional access, shoot me a note and I can share the article with you.

I’m also excited to be heading to the Association for Asian Studies annual conference in Washington DC next March, where I’ll be participating in a neat digital humanities-driven panel entitled, “Bodies and Structures: Deep-Mapping the Spaces of Japanese History”.

Finally, I’ll be in Tokyo for a few weeks over December and January, making use of the National Diet Library and (let’s be honest) eating more than I probably should. When I was in Japan last winter, I brought along an old Olympus 35ED film camera, pulled from the depths of the storage chest in which it was abandoned during the violence of the digital revolution. I bought it in 2003 at a small photography store in Kofu, Yamanashi Prefecture, where I was teaching English after college. Even then, the 1970s camera felt like a relic (check out this link to read from someone who actually knows about the camera itself), but it proved to be surprisingly durable. It was completely waterlogged after a rainy backpacking trip across the nearby Yatsugatake mountain range (八ヶ岳連峰). I was certain it’d given up the ghost; the lens was fogged and rainwater pooled in the film compartment. Through no effort of my own but the installation of a new battery, it came to life, rust-free and unperturbed by my poor stewardship (the camera’s proof of life are the photos below).

See you this winter, Tokyo. I’ll try to remember the camera again.

The entrance to Meiji Shrine (明治神宮).

Empty handles in empty trains.

Rikkyō University (立教大学), home of the wonderful Rikkyō University Research Center for Cooperative Civil Studies, where I did much of my dissertation research.

A strolling couple admires a street performer in Yokohama’s Minato Mirai.



As I write this, members of the Gail Project are wrapping up a two-week trip to Okinawa. I, however, am in New London, where I’ve just taken up a post as Visiting Assistant Professor in Japanese History at Connecticut College. While this means that I’m lucky to join a vibrant academic community and meet a whole new crew of eager students, it also means that my new schedule didn’t allow me to go to Okinawa with the Gail Project. I’ll admit that it’s been bittersweet to keep up with their travels from afar, but they’ve been doing a great job documenting their trip for those of us left behind. Alan Christy and the other directors of the project have mapped out what looks like a busy (ok, exhausting) schedule. I invite you to check out some of the Gail Project’s social media accounts to see just they’ve been doing. And don’t forget the all new Gail website!

Gail on Twitter

Gail on Tumblr

Gail on Facebook

Gail on Instagram

Giving Day for The Gail Project

UCSC’s Giving Day is here again. The support we receive today is so important in helping our students to engage with Okinawan history and develop skills that they can take with them beyond the archives. We remain grateful those who have supported our students as they coordinate our photo exhibit, digitize our archive of U.S. military documents, and finalize our new website. As we continue these projects, our ability to fund our student-researchers remains central to The Gail Project‘s mission of helping students with a keen interest in Okinawa to “get their hands dirty” with the real work of historical preservation and presentation.

This is a busy year for us. We are organizing the opening exhibition of the Gail photos, which will take place at UCSC’s Eloise Pickard Smith Gallery this fall, along with an intense study-research trip this summer in Okinawa, where our students will finally get to experience the place they have spent so much time researching. Finally, our interactive website goes live and soon people from around the world will be able to share their own experiences of Okinawa through their interactions with the photos.

I think Ira Glass could do it better, but I’ll say that we remain very grateful to our supporters! Today, March 8, please take a moment to donate to The Gail Project. A generous donor has agreed to match our donations 1:1 up to $2,500. And check out the promo video our students made!