(Friday Night History) Sendai Miso

Modern miso soup. (Image in PD)

Soup. Yeah, that’s where we’re going to start out this week: we’re going to start out with soup. Specifically, let’s talk about miso, which doesn’t have to be soup but is most famous for being soup. Now, miso ingredients can vary, but generally, all types of miso have soybean, salt, and rice malt, and include the fungus aspergillus oryzae. It’s usually in the form of thick paste that  can be spooned into boiling water and made into soup, but it can be used for other cooking applications as well– everything from sauces, to pickling to grilling and more besides. There’s a variety of miso types, too, but the most broad distinction is the groupings of red miso and white miso. Red miso is more a hallmark of eastern Japan, while white miso is more of a hallmark of western Japan, but of course, today, you can eat both kinds anywhere. Nowadays in the US, both red and white miso are fairly ubiquitous where miso is to be had, and within that, the variety I’ve most often seen of red miso is Shinshu miso– miso from Nagano Prefecture– but Shinshu is not the only type of red miso.

Yeah, you guessed it. Let’s go to Sendai.

Among the many forms of tangible heritage left behind by the roughly two hundred and fifty years of Sendai domain under the house of Date is a variety of red miso called Sendai miso after the domain’s capital, where it was first made. Even before the Edo period, miso was ubiquitous in Japan, and because it was salted and fermented and could be carried in a form where all one needed to add was water to make soup, it was also important to any feudal domain’s system of military provisioning. So, while there was miso in Date lands before the early 17th century, it was only with the development of the Sendai castle town that the stage was set for the creation of what we now call Sendai miso, in the early 17th century.

While the so-called Great Man theory of history is BS, the fact of the matter is, Date Masamune (1567-1636), 17th Lord Date and the founder of the Sendai castle town, was not only an experienced battlefield commander by the time he founded his new city, but was also personally invested in cooking and known for that being one of his many interests. He built a brewery in his castle grounds to produce sake for the clan’s use, and he himself took hands-on involvement in brewing experiments that produced one of Japan’s earliest forms of energy drink. The brewery, whose ruins I’ve visited in person back in 2005, was run by Kayamori Mataemon, who Masamune had lured away from the latter’s prior service as a brewer to the sword-slinging Yagyu clan of Yamato Province– yes, as in Yagyu Munenori– but let’s save that particular story for another time now, shall we?

But along with a sake brewery and other such amenities for his new capital, Masamune also established Japan’s first miso factory, the Omisogura (Official Miso Warehouse), with an eye toward developing miso production technique and also supplying miso for the use of his clan and its forces. While this was a period where active armed conflict was becoming increasingly rare, Masamune had seen war firsthand, and wanted to invest in the security and better supplying of his clan’s armies. This is, after all, the man who once said (quoted in Date Butoku Ibunroku, p. 20.):

No matter whether they’re good or bad, one must equip one’s bannermen and soldiers uniformly. Though we are warriors far in the hinterland, I have made this my family’s military protocol. Our battle array could easily be mistaken for one from central Japan.

Equipping doesn’t just involve weapons and armor– though in that realm as well, the house of Date invested in improved and uniform equipping of its forces. It also involves food, for after all, as Masamune’s hero Oda Nobunaga once said, “if your stomach hurts, you can’t fight.”  And so, let’s talk about Sendai miso.

Upon the founding of the Miso Warehouse, the Makabeya family took charge of its operations. This was one of the families that was of longest standing in the castle town; the local term for families of long standing was konin 古人, and Makabeya was the leading family of the konin. Makabeya first advertised Sendai miso in the third month of Kan’ei 3 (April-ish, 1626), and after seeing its success and popularity, the house of Date selected Makabeya to manage the warehouse. Makabeya also became both the official miso purveyor as well as the official salt wholesaler in service to the clan. Why salt? Because salt is necessary in miso production, and salt was one of the products of the greater Sendai area– remember, the town of Shiogama, just up the road, is named after salt kettles, the most famous of them being the ones enshrined as goshintai, or divine vessels, at Shiogama Shrine. Legend has it that the gods of Shiogama Shrine taught the local humans how to make salt out of the sea water. The miso that Makabeya produced on behalf of the house of Date became the forerunner of all modern forms of Sendai miso.

So what makes Sendai miso so different? First, it is saltier than other red miso. Second, it’s fermented for longer, as long as a year! Having tasted it, the best way I can describe its potency is “imagine if kimchi was miso.” Because of its higher salt content, it also keeps for longer.

Major military conflict in Japan may have ended, as of 1638, but Date forces would continue deployment in border patrol roles. They especially saw service on coast patrol in the north, in Ezochi (modern day Hokkaido and the Kuril Islands) where the Russian Empire’s ships and people were coming into increasing contact with the extremes of territory under Japanese control. The last military engagement of Date forces was in the Boshin War, in late 1868 near the tail end of the Northern Alliance’s existence. But through it all, miso production remained a service that the Date clan kept as a necessity, for its armies as well as its use at home. But this variety of miso soon spread elsewhere. The Date lord would bring an entourage of roughly three thousand retainers along on his alternate-attendance tours to the Shogun’s court, and the clan also made provision to keep them supplied with the hometown miso variety while they were on assignment in Edo. Date vassal turned early 20th century Sendai mayor Yamada Kiichi’s treatise “Sendai Bussan Enkaku”– written in 1917, published 1925– is a treatise on noteworthy local handcrafts or products in the old Date lands. In it, he notes that miso production according to the Makabeya family’s recipe eventually set up at the Date estate in Shinagawa (then outside Edo, now Shinagawa city of Tokyo metropolis), and it was from this source that Edoites at large were properly introduced to Sendai miso.

Mayor Yamada Kiichi, author of Sendai Bussan Enkaku (1847-1923). Image in PD

Despite its position overseeing the official Miso Warehouse, Makabeya wasn’t the only family in the Sendai miso business; other businesses sold miso in Sendai domain even in the Edo period, especially in the late Edo period: Ōta Yohachirō, which used to be an inn company with an establishment in front of Shiogama Shrine serving pilgrims to the shrine, went into the miso and soy business in 1845! It was first a side business serving the inn, but has now become the main focus of its business to this day. You can learn more about it at its beautifully illustrated homepage here https://oota-yohachiro.com/about/

Service to the house of Date in the production of Sendai miso, over many decades, brought the Makabeya family great prestige in both business and in the hierarchy of the warrior caste. It remained a merchant family and chief of the konin of Sendai, but also was a stipended warrior vassal family of the Date, with a modest stipend of 100 koku and the use of the warrior family name of Furuki. When you consider that merchants were at the bottom of the Edo period caste structure, a merchant that also held special status as a stipended warrior, especially one in the service of the fourth wealthiest clan in Japan, was in a rare and for the time enviable position. But by the 5th generation Makabeya, Makabeya Ichibe’e V, the family’s business ventures were faring so well, that this Makabeya submitted a request to the Date government to give up this stipend. He wasn’t giving up the warrior caste status, just the stipend, which he didn’t need, given how his business was flourishing.

Given the Date government’s chronic problems with its budget  this could only have been a welcome gesture. Particularly starting in the mid-Edo period, northern Honshu in general and the Date lands in particular were hit with a long stretch of running famine and crop failure; I wrote about this in one of my dissertation chapters, because it had long term implications as far as what the clan could afford to invest in and the kind of force and resources it could field in an actual shooting war as opposed to a passive border guard action. One less stipend it was obliged to pay could only have been a relief to some bureaucrat in the accounting office at Sendai Castle.

But in recognition of the family’s loyal service, the domain granted Makabeya a new, nominal stipend of 24 koku. Makabeya again refused. When this refusal was rejected by the domain, they reached a compromise: the 24 koku would be split in half, 12 koku going to its family funerary temple of Kinshōji and the other 12 going to Jūkokuji, a different temple in the Kitayama district; both are still extant today. The Date government accepted this counter-proposal, so piety ultimately won out. And all in the name of success from soup.

Sendai Miso’s military role didn’t end with the disestablishment of the feudal domains in 1871. Advances in technology and brewing technique allowed for quicker production. The Imperial Army used this form of Sendai miso as its own miso ration– again drawn by how long it would keep– through the end of the Second World War.

Today, Sendai miso remains overwhelmingly produced in Miyagi Prefecture in general and Sendai and its surrounding municipalities like Shiogama in particular. It can be hard to get ahold of outside Japan sometimes, but if you get the chance, I encourage you to give it a try! If you do, check out these recipes from the Sendai Miso Shoyu Company: http://www.sendaimiso.co.jp/recipe/ — if you’re listening to the podcast version, check out the blogpost and follow the link.

And just think: you’re tasting Date history right there in your soup.

I’m Nyri, and this has been #FridayNightHistory.

Now– questions?


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