(Friday Night History) Sendai Suzume Odori

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Japanese castles of the Edo period, thanks to World Heritage sites like Himeji Castle, have a well known and very distinctive silhouette, but are not all identical.

They were, however, meant as a visible mark of a feudal lord’s power as well as a residence. And even though the Edo period was, by and large, a long period of peace, a castle was also a military nerve center and was built with the defensive architecture to underline that part of its role. Some castles were built on flat land with labyrinthine moats and high walls, while others were built into hills and mountains in order to take advantage of naturally defensible terrain. Aoba Castle, also known as Sendai Castle, was the home fortress of the house of Date during the Edo period. Its castle town became the modern city of Sendai. And our story today begins with its construction.

Mount Aoba– Aobayama– is 203.16 meters tall, and it’s really more of a hill. It stands in Aoba Ward in modern day Sendai, in a bend of the Hirose River just before the river turns south and east to where it meets the Natori River which carries its waters to the river’s mouth at Yuriage and the waiting Pacific beyond. It has a commanding view– partially obscured today by the buildings of modern downtown– of the Sendai basin. There had been a small fortification there before 1600, but it was there that Date Masamune chose to build his new castle in 1600, when he celebrated groundbreaking with a five-part Noh and amended the place’s name to its current spelling of 仙台 (仙臺 in old-form kanji): “Home of the Immortals.” As Masamune was a lover of the Chinese classics, the name should come as no surprise to those who know their Chinese classics– this is the name of the place in Journey to the West where the Monkey King steals the Peaches of Immortality. Relatedly, a common– although spoken rather than written– name for the area of the city until the mid-20th century was Rakuchu. This is still used to refer to Kyoto, but was also used to refer to Sendai starting in those early days. It positions Sendai as a successor to Luoyang (Rakuyo in Japanese), once a capital of the Eastern Han dynasty in ancient China. So in short, Masamune had grand dreams for himself and big plans for his capital.

Suzume odori-zu, from vol. 3 of Hokusai Manga, published 1815. (Image PD)

Having walked up Mount Aoba in 2005, I can tell you it’s rocky and pretty steep to get up on foot even today, with one paved road snaking up to the top, and blazed trails elsewhere. Parts of it, particularly on the west side, even have some of the area’s sections of old-growth forest. But if you’re going to build a castle on and around a hill, you have to adapt it at least a little bit, of course, in order to build residences and guard towers and gates and some measure of walls or stone platforms for all of that stuff to sit on, because hills are, y’know, uneven.

Over the course of the 1590s, Masamune had spent a great deal of time in central Japan, at Hideyoshi’s Jurakudai court in Kyoto and later at Osaka Castle, as one of Hideyoshi’s vassals and generals, including during the Imjin War.

He wanted to build something that would rival those structures that his overlord had boasted of. At this point, he was still planning on making a longshot bid to take over Japan himself, so he had the long view in mind of what image he wanted to project to the world. So he summoned stonemasons from Sakai– modern day Sakai, Osaka Prefecture– to come build the stonework of his new castle.

I should sidebar, here. Chances are, your mental image of a Japanese castle is going to look something like Himeji Castle. But not every castle in the Edo period had the iconic main tower (tenshukaku), and the tower isn’t the castle, but rather just one part of the castle. The stone base on which the walls, towers, and defensive works sit are, well, the foundation to it all. Sakai stonemasons were renowned as the best, so Masamune got Sakai stonemasons to make his new castle. But here’s the catch: once they were done, they weren’t allowed to return home. They were now privy to military secrets. To reiterate something from last week: yes, Sendai Castle was Masamune’s residence, but it was also a military installation and strategic asset, so it was a location that was off limits to people from outside Date lands. Local historian and folklorist Mihara Ryokichi notes that when the house of Date did receive dignitaries from elsewhere in Japan, any reception would happen at the Matsuyama Estate in Sendai’s Katahira district, which was the residence of the Moniwa family, a senior vassal family in service to the Date. As a family with its own income equal to that of a minor independent lord, the Moniwa’s Matsuyama Estate was quite fabulous in its own right.

But it wasn’t just “you can’t go home” and leaving them to twist in the wind. In recognition of the stonemasons’ service, and perhaps in recompense for preventing them from returning home, Masamune stipended them as his clan’s official stonemasons, and gave them a neighborhood as their own.

Let’s be real. I have to wonder if they knew from the beginning that this was a one-way trip to Sendai. I have to wonder how they must’ve felt when they got the news. Even if it meant getting a permanent stipend, a permanent gig, and a neighborhood all their own, it couldn’t have been easy. I feel for these stonemasons.

So. When the stonemasons finished their work, Masamune organized a celebration– and remember, this is a man who was notorious even in his time for his love of parties and his skill with drumming. He’s also the man who had a brewery built into said brand-new castle. So with the stonemasons and the dignitaries rip-roaring drunk– the story has it that Masamune played the taiko personally at this party– the stonemasons performed an improvised dance whose motions resembled the flapping and flitting of sparrows in flight. Because the main Date crest since Masamune’s father’s time was, and still is, an image of two sparrows encircled in bamboo, the name “sparrow dance” (suzume odori すずめ踊り) stuck. These stonemasons’ descendants continued in Date service and continued to preserve the dance, which is how we have it today.

The castle that these stonemasons helped build survived through the end of the Edo period and the pensioning off of the house of Date into the modern system of Japanese nobility. But it remained a strategically important location. The IJA took over the castle site, and remade its outer baileys into the headquarters of the Second Infantry Division, which survived until 1945. At war’s end, the US Army took possession of the castle site and the outer baileys became home to the US Army’s Camp Sendai, one of the US occupation forces’ 13 bases in the prefecture. After the US withdrew, the area finally passed from military use. Today, parts of it are a botanical garden, parts of it are a park, other parts are residences. And rather prominently, the core of the old US military base is now the campus of Tohoku University’s Kawauchi Campus. As a patron of the podcast put it recently over Twitter, just because there’s been a regime change doesn’t necessarily mean that a strategically important position is going to be abandoned completely.

So anyway. Having said all of that. Why, you may well ask, does the Sparrow Dance matter?

Fast forward to the early Meiji era. There were many shrines established starting in the 1870s to enshrine the deified founders of local ruling clans, and Sendai was no exception. The house of Date had sought permission from the Shogunate in the 1860s to establish this shrine. But the political turmoil of the 1860s as well as the clan’s straitened financial circumstances meant that neither the Shogunate nor the house of Date could afford the time, energy, or money to invest in the task– and of course, then the Boshin War happened and broke large swaths of northern Honshu. But in 1874, the imperial government allowed for the founding of Aoba Shrine, which still exists and still enshrines Masamune today. One of its major festivals, in the late spring, was the Aoba Festival– named for the shrine, which was named for the castle– which drew on the longer tradition of the Sendai Festival, an earlier spring festival held at Toshogu Shrine, across town in Miyamachi district. Toshogu enshrined the deified Tokugawa Ieyasu, founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate, and Sendai Festival began in 1654, and because of the alternate-attendance system that took the ruling Date lord away from Sendai on a regular basis, was held every other year when he was in town.

In the festival procession through the Sendai streets, people in straw hats and hanten coat danced the Sparrow Dance, kept alive for all those years by the descendants of the same stonemasons. In 1985, the city adopted it as a local civic holiday and festival, celebrating not just the city’s founder but also the city’s culture and long history in general. It’s now called the Sendai Aoba Festival, and is still held every year in May.

YouTube has many videos of the Sparrow Dance from many years of the Aoba Festival. Teams from neighborhoods, schools, and businesses compete in variations of the original, base form of the dance. I encourage you to go look it up and take a moment to appreciate it. There’s a common component drawn from the original Sparrow Dance, but every team gets to riff on that in other sections of their presentation.

One of the first bits of Sendai culture I saw on display– performed by some visiting students from Tohoku Gakuin University, nearly two decades ago– was the Sparrow Dance. And now that I know the story of the stonemasons’ impromptu dance with the man who’d brought them on a one-way trip so far from home, I feel like there’s a measure of emotional heft that accompanies it.

Incidentally, parts of the old stonemasons’ neighborhood, especially side streets? They still bear the name Ishikiri-cho– Stonecutter Town. They’re now part of Hachiman-cho 2-chome, in Sendai’s Aoba Ward.

So remember, if you would, the stonemasons of Sakai, so far from home. They were the ones who laid the foundation for the castle and for the dance of the city that the castle helped build.

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

Now– questions?


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