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  • Sensational Knowledge: Embodying Culture through Japanese Dance
  • Wendy Hsu (bio)
Sensational Knowledge: Embodying Culture through Japanese Dance. By Tomie Hahn. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2007. 224 pp.

After the recent release of Steven Spielberg's blockbuster movie Memoirs of a Geisha, Björk's CD Homogenic, and a series of music videos by Madonna, Missy Elliot, Ginuwine, and Christina Milian, the kimono-clad Asian woman has become one of the icons of Asian chic in pop America.1 With the nineteenth-century French fad of Japanese art and culture known as japonisme in our nearly remote hindsight, the exoticized and eroticized bodies of Japanese women are certainly not a new trope in Europe and North America. One wonders what cultural impact this Western fascination with the Asian/ Japanese female body has on women who practice traditional arts in Japan.

Tomie Hahn's ethnography Sensational Knowledge: Embodying Culture through Japanese Dance provides a powerful dissonance to the widely circulated objectifying images of Japanese women. In the introduction Hahn invokes her subversive impulse to "reappropriate the exotic mystique of the 'fan dance' stereotype of the demure 'Oriental lady' who entices the onlookers' gaze by revealing and concealing her body . . . to reappropriate the fan, kimono, and hair ornaments to tell a very different story of Japanese performing women" (14–15).

Hahn's monograph on the embodied transmission process of Japanese dance (nihon buyo)—narrating while analyzing the author's fieldwork and experiences of learning the dance for over thirty years—is rhetorically captivating and intellectually nuanced. Hahn draws methodological and theoretical ideas from a number of disciplines, including "ethnomusicology, dance studies, anthropology, performance studies, and Asian philosophies of the body" (2). As Hahn indicates, the book's organization poetically corresponds to the unfolding movement of a sensu, a paper fan supported by a bamboo backbone, often used in nihon buyo. The first chapter, "Introduction—Sensual Orientations," outlines reflexive ethnographic methods and the frame-work of cultural transmission with a focus on body knowledge and multisensory experience. The second chapter, "Moving Scenes," narrates the recent social history and structure of the practice of traditional Japanese dance. Chapter 3, "Unfolding Essence," elucidates the relevant concepts and aesthetic principles of Japanese arts. Chapter 4, "Revealing Lessons," details the transmission process, with a substantial section [End Page 110] devoted to discussing each of the senses involved. The last chapter, "Transforming Sensu," explores issues of codeswitching, identity formation and articulation, and cultural transformation involved in the embodiment practices of fieldwork and performances.

Hahn locates her body as a deposit of her field experience. The field site is conceived as a broad landscape, at the center of which is her own body and from which extend other important social actors such as her teachers, colleagues, and the audience of her performance. This frame of knowledge appears and disappears, depending on how her body engages with the history of the dance and the memories of her dance teachers (xiv). Echoing recent feminist dance and performance scholarship, Sensational Knowledge's emphasis on the body as a key epistemological locus diffuses the historical mind-over-body baggage in Western scholarship.2 Hahn's adherence to the cultural specificity of the Japanese traditional practice and principles—the interdependence of mind and body, theory and practice—illuminates her implicit critique of the masculinist Western Cartesian split.

Sensational Knowledge confronts the challenging task of translating movement into text head-on with keen descriptive details written in elegant prose. "I crave specificity and a semblance of physical presence in dance scholarship. Limbs. Breath. Shoulders. Muscles. Gaze" (6). Inspired by the dance writing of Barbara Browning and other dance ethnologists since the mid-1980s, the moving quality (physically and affectively) of Hahn's prose achieves kinesthetic sensation and evokes the reader's empathy.3 In Hahn's writing dance is not just composed of movements and techniques but is a stream of sensations, experiences, meanings, and emotions.

Hahn follows feminist ethnographers Lila Abu-Lughod, Ruth Behar, and Michelle Kisliuk to write with vulnerability and reflexivity.4 Rather than making passive, nonparticipatory, quantifiable, and objectifying observations, Hahn foregrounds social relationships, revolving around those with her teachers. Her framework and analysis are informed by the poststructuralist...


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