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Reviewed by:
  • Sensational Knowledge: Embodying Culture Through Japanese Dance
  • Barbara Sellers-Young
Sensational Knowledge: Embodying Culture Through Japanese Dance. Tomie Hahn. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2007. 197 pp. + DVD. Paper $26.95.

In Sensational Knowledge ethnomusicologist Tomie Hahn uses her thirty-plus years studying nihon buyo in Tokyo's Tachibana School to illustrate the body-to-body nature of Japanese dance training. In a highly readable and often poetic writing style, Hahn integrates current research in the anthropology of the senses by David Howe and others with her deeply held knowledge of the Tachibana method of training to maintain that culture is not enacted on the body but through the senses of the body. As such, she asks a series of questions, including: "How are cultural systems of teaching bound to the sensorial [End Page 160] and the constructedness of awareness? Can some transmission practices incite transformative effects? Further, how does the culturally constructed process of transmission influence our sense of self?" (3).

In the first chapter, subtitled "sensual orientations," Hahn lays the groundwork for the study stressing her commitment to reflexivity as a mode of ethnographic inquiry, a method previously evolved by such dance scholars as Cynthia Novack, Marta Savigliano, and Deidre Sklar, following the 1980s critiques of ethnography by George Marcus and James Clifford. As she states it, "I decided to write this ethnography with a reflexive voice because my body physically experiences and informs my perspective on transmission, and ignoring this embodied voice would have been disingenuous" (9). From this reflexive stance, Hahn has a specific interest in cultural transmission that is related to her personal heritage and parents who trace their lineage individually to Germany and Japan. This dual heritage is a subtext of the book as Hahn at the age of four becomes a student in the Tachibana School and its related Japanese ethos. She has brought this stance to the reader's attention through short notes from her field journal that open and position each chapter.

Although not a consistent theme throughout the text, Hahn takes an activist stance against the popular media's presentation of Japanese women performers, and by transference Japanese women, in books and films such as Memoirs of a Geisha. Her goal as she articulates it is to use the costume and props of nihon buyo as a metaphor for a "different story of Japanese performing women" (15). Thus, throughout the text, there is reference to the unfolding of the fan as a metaphor for the opening into experience and the closing words of the text reference a closed fan enfolded against the dancer's body.

Hahn provides in chapter 2, "Moving Scenes—History and Social Structure," the history of the Tachibana school of nihon buyo and its relationship to the development of nihon buyo as a performance form associated with but separate from kabuki and such other Japanese performance forms as and bunraku. A natori or named member of the Tachibana school as samie Tachibana, Hahn provides an account of her relationship to two generations of iemoto or heads of the Tachibana School, Tachibana Hiroyo and her daughter Tachibana Yoshie. In her discussion of her interactions with Tachibana Hiroyo and Tachibana Yoshie, Hahn provides a glimpse into the personal nature of the student/teacher relationship and the mutual responsibilities of each. She also acknowledges the limitation of her research as existing only within the Tachibana School. For while Hahn's study is indicative of transmission processes in schools of nihon buyo, it is not necessarily representative of other schools of nihon buyo who have distinct historical lineages related approaches to training students.

Chapters 3 and 4, "Unfolding Essence—Energetic Sensibilities and Aesthetics" and "Revealing Lessons—Modes of Transmission Visual, Tactile, Oral, Aural, and Media," as well as the related DVD, are the pivotal segments of Hahn's research, as she details the nihon buyo's attachment to Zen theories of the body and its practice in its mode of transmission in the Tachibana School. Hahn uses case studies of dancers, as well as her personal experience, [End Page 161] to describe a process in which each of the student's sensory modalities are engaged in the learning...


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