An Update from the Dreaming Spires: Adjustments and Expansions in Oxford

It’s been a while since my last blog post, and in that time, a lot has changed about my work environment and my research goals. Term has been over for only a few weeks here in Oxford, and it’s been bittersweet to watch everything I’ve worked on during term wind down and most of my friends go home, wherever that is for them. I’ve been trying to use this time to reflect on what I want to gain from being here in England more generally, beyond the time I’ve been logging in the Bodleian and what I’ve managed to do so far. I’ve also broadened my research focus to examine more instances of late-Tokugawa Japanese diplomacy and travel, beginning a few years after the arrival of Commodore Perry in 1854 until the official beginning of the Meiji period in 1868.

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Samurai Abroad: Introduction and Research Abstract

My name is Isabel Bush, and since January, I have been studying abroad through William & Mary’s Oxford Sponsored Semester Programme.  Oxford, for me, is perfectly encapsulated by Evelyn Waugh in the first chapter of Brideshead Revisited.
“…I went full of curiosity and the faint, unrecognized apprehension that here, at last, I should find that low door in the wall, which others, I knew, had found before me, which opened on an enclosed and enchanted garden, which was somewhere, not overlooked by any window, in the heart of that grey city.”
I found my low door in a wall one Thursday, five weeks into my first term, when I attended a lecture at Oxford’s Nissan Institute for Japanese Studies, entitled “Samurai Abroad: Photographs of the Takenouchi Mission to Europe (1862),” presented by researchers from the Pitt Rivers Museum. While the Takenouchi mission (1862), and its related Ikeda mission (1864) have not been completely neglected by historians, their significance is often scrutinized only as a part of a larger diplomatic effort by the Japanese government in the late nineteenth century, instead of as a Tokugawa-era forerunner to the empire-building of the Meiji Restoration. In 2011, the Pitt Rivers was able to mount an exhibit on the two missions based on their collection of ethnographic photographs from the missions’ stay in Paris. Since then, this research has been continued, albeit on a smaller scale, which led to the presentation that I saw at the Nissan Institute.
My research goals are to build on the Pitt Rivers’ work thus far, and, in gratitude for the help and access I have been granted, I will combine my individual research goals with those of the museum, in order to ensure that this collection receives its due attention. I will examine the objectives of Takenouchi and Ikeda missions in comparison to those of Meiji-era missions, and to analyze their successes, their failures, and their legacies in modern Japanese diplomacy. I will attempt to track the backgrounds of individual envoys in the missions (as far as my language abilities allow), and what their presence indicated about the governmental objectives in the early Japan’s reopening. Furthermore, I will analyze the imagery that was created about the envoys in the countries they visited, starting with the Pitt Rivers’ photographs from Paris. I will use these images to discuss the modern formation of Japanese imagery abroad, and how that imagery is consumed both outside and inside Japan to this day.

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Historical Analogies in the Pivot to Asia

In 2011, the Obama administration unveiled a much-publicized “pivot to Asia”—a grand strategy to strengthen America’s position in the region through the overt use of military, diplomatic, economic, and cultural instruments. “Pivot” is an appropriate title; it is a definitive break from past policy. Waxing engagement and waning containment characterized American strategy towards China in the 1990s and 2000s. Now, it seems, the U.S. government is refocusing on military balancing.

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