Friday Night History, 18 Sept. 2020: “Koike Chikyoku, Combat Artist”

Meandering Stream at Lanting (detail), a nanga painting by Suzuki Fuyō, 1806. (PD)

History is a living thing. And like any living thing, it is not perfect– it has gaps of many kinds.

First and foremost, let’s bear in mind– the things that happened in the past, and the things we write about the things that happened in the past, are two things, which we both call history. But they are not the same as each other! And the documentary evidence on which we base those writings can have gaps of many kinds.

One kind of gap is missing or fragmentary records. We need to be careful, of course, because absence of evidence doesn’t equal evidence, and we need to remember that fragmentary doesn’t mean things won’t turn up later. Case in point: the now standard biographical photo of Saito Hajime, on whom I did another thread, had been “lost” in a descendant’s attic for many years. When I began studying 1860s Japan, there were no photos of Saito. Now there are. Long story short, documents turn up, fill the gaps, alter perceptions, and in turn, alter the histories we write.

History, dear reader, is a living thing.

My study of Koike Chikyoku is a case in point, for this. She’s not a famous historical figure by any means– far from it. You really have to dig to find references about her. And yet. And yet! What little I have has grown in the time I’ve known of her. 

She was born in 1824, in Fukudome, in what’s now Hakusan, Ishikawa Prefecture. Her father was a warrior in service to the house of Maeda, who ruled that region, then called Kanazawa or Kaga domain. As a young woman, Chikyoku– also known as Koike Shisetsu– traveled Japan in pursuit of an art education. Stylistically, her work is classed in the Chinese-influenced black-ink nanga style. Nanga is not the same as manga– nanga is also known as bunjinga, “literati painting,” for its artists considered themselves literati in the style of their Chinese counterparts. While as an artist she isn’t a household name by any means, Chikyoku’s name appears in a 1913 appraisal guide listing the values of the work of historic and contemporary artists and calligraphers.

She was in Kyoto in the 1860s, when public security for the city was in the hands of the northern Aizu domain. At the Boshin War’s outbreak, she went north to Aizu, where she fought in an all-female unit. This is thought to be the same all-female unit in which Nakano Takeko fought, but I can’t prove that with what resources I’ve amassed. Taken captive, she was released once it became clear that she was an outsider and not actually owing any feudal allegiance or obligation to Aizu. She continued her art, went to Toyohashi, in the Tokai region, and lived to age 54, dying in 1878.

We don’t know a lot about her personal life– and we don’t have a known portrait of her either— but there’s an interesting tidbit from Ishikawa ken-shi (A History of Ishikawa Prefecture) Vol. 3 that gives just enough information to raise as many questions as it answers:

 “Chikyoku detested men. It was her custom, even in lodgings on the road, to put up a sign cordoning off her quarters and forbidding their entry.”

Well now. What’s going on here?

In my recent interview with Heather Rose Jones of the @LesbianMotif podcast, we touched on the changes in language surrounding queer identities through history. We also talked about how historical figures’ orientations and identities may not fit neatly into modern, especially western, boxes– despite the tendency among those of us who are some stripe of LGBTQ today, to “name and claim.”

So, I read that quote about Chikyoku and I wonder. Much as the “man-hating lesbian” trope is a homophobic trope, some non-male queer folks I know today do feel strongly about wanting to avoid close quarters with men, so, might Chikyoku have been what we would now call queer? Might she have had other reasons for going to such lengths to keep away from men? Consider, also, that she went all the way across Japan to a northern fief she probably hadn’t visited before, and fought in an all-female unit. This seems a great length to have gone to, for a freewheeling, unorthodox artist who likely had little if any formal training as a combatant. So what was the driving force, here?

As I said– raises more questions than it answers. But that’s okay! My understanding of Chikyoku’s life has evolved, and will continue to evolve.

My sources– working from the US, without academic affiliation– are limited. But even when I still had academic affiliation, I remember there wasn’t much in the way of ready sources about her. She was, after all, hardly the only nanga artist of her era, and hardly the most notable woman to have gone to war in the Boshin War. However, my present picture of her has evolved, particularly as I find more sources reaching digitization. In time, I will get to return to Japan, and scour local archives, and this too will change things.

When I first learned about her in 2006, I never imagined there’d be enough to say about her to fill an entire thread of short posts, let alone the longer article form this thread took on my Patreon. I wrote an article about her in 2017 for Gutsy Broads too, and I have more to say here than I did there. And now, I think I’m better able to come to grips with that fundamental truth:

History changes. And that’s just as it should be.

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