(Friday Night History) At Any Cost

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Kattamine Shrine. Photo by Kumamushi (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons, CC 3.0)

Note: an earlier version of this episode stated the latest eruption of Mount Zao happened in the 1890s. The most recent eruption was in fact in April 1940. My apologies for the error.

So the story starts with the collapse of the Ming Dynasty. Fleeing the instability of the dynasty’s final decades, and then the Manchu conquest, many Ming refugees fled to safety elsewhere in East Asia, including Japan. They are responsible for a range of things that are often considered quintessentially Japanese: ramen and early judo are just two of them. Quite a few of the refugees were also hired by Japanese daimyo. As able scholars, bureaucrats, commanders, and the like, their expertise was unique and useful to these daimyo who were still setting up their domain administrations. Date Masamune was among those daimyo who hired or hosted Ming refugees, including a man named Wang Yi (Ōyoku, in Japanese 王翼). Before he came to Sendai, Wang Yi had been a general in service to the Ming, and had even fought in the Imjin War against Japan.

While Wang Yi was a former military officer, he also had experience in Daoist ritual and divination. To an aspiring conqueror of Japan and admirer of Chinese culture and classics like Date Masamune, he would have been an attractive asset. Remember, as we learned in recent episodes, beyond his generally internationalist mentality that prompted his sending a delegation to Mexico and Europe, Masamune also named his capital after the name of the place in Journey to the West where the Monkey King steals the Peaches of Immortality. He also saw his capital as a successor to Luoyang (Rakuyo in Japanese), once a capital of the Eastern Han dynasty in ancient China, and as a result, until the 20th century, a euphemism for Sendai was “Rakuchu.” Over the course of his tenure as daimyo, Masamune also had quite a few visits by Chinese travelers in Japan. During my PhD research, I found a couple of references to those visits in Date Chike Kiroku, the orthodox Date clan history, where one particularly memorable occasion was in the summer of 1589, where the visitors brought “fireworks of Chinese manufacture” with them. So it really isn’t too surprising to me that Wang Yi had come to Sendai.

But apart from building a new domain in this period, Masamune also had to contend with Mount Zaō.

Mount Zaō is a cluster of volcanoes, about 1841 meters at their highest point, in southwestern Miyagi Prefecture, along the border with Yamagata Prefecture. In the 1620s, it was very active. In the spring of 1623, a particularly large eruption began, depositing volcanic ash across Katta and Shibata counties. The eruptions and tremors continued through 1624 unabated, and the erupting volcano was visible even from Sendai, about 25 miles (40km) away as the crow flies. It was generally an intimidating sight, to be sure, but it was also a danger to the population and a threat to the agricultural base from which the domain, and indeed any domain in Edo period Japan, derived the base of its income from which it did things like pay its retainers their stipend.

With such a very long period of eruption, Masamune sought to secure supernatural means to quell the threat. He ordered Wang Yi to go perform rituals at the mountain to get the eruption to stop. Together with Wang Yi, Masamune’s seventh son Munetaka also went, as a representative of his father. Munetaka was 17 at the time, but was already master of his own 30,000-koku landholding within Sendai domain, residing at Murata Castle in what’s now southwestern Miyagi, in the shadow of Mount Zaō. It was the people of his lands that were most directly impacted by the eruption. On November 15, 1624 (10/5/Kan’ei 1), Munetaka and Wang Yi went up to the peak of Mount Zaō at Kattamine Shrine, amidst continuing eruption and loud tremors. There, Wang Yi conducted a ritual to beseech the spirit of the mountain to please, please stop. In return, he and Munetaka pledged their lives to the mountain. And not very long after that, Mount Zaō’s eruptions and tremors stopped. The relief to everyone in the region, in Date lands as well as in the neighboring domains, must have been palpable.

But the story doesn’t end here.

Date Munetaka accompanied his father and brother to Kyoto two years later. He had a promising career ahead, and in Kyoto, the imperial court bestowed him with junior fifth court rank and the title of Uemon-dayū. But while he was still in Kyoto, Munetaka fell ill with smallpox, which was an epidemic at the time. By the western calendar, he died on October 7, 1626, at age 19, just shy of 20.

Folklorist Mihara Ryokichi puts it like this; translation mine:

“Munetaka stayed Yōhō-ji, a Hokke sect temple, while he was in Kyoto. on the 10th of the 7th month, he received the titles of Junior 5th rank lower grade and Uemon-dayu during an audience at Nijo Castle. But these felicitations were short-lived, because sadly, on the 8th of the 17th month, he died of smallpox. Dying at 20, it was an end that was in accordance with the plea he made to Mount Zaō.”

I don’t know the specifics of what kind of ritual that Wang Yi performed, but reading Mihara’s words, I can’t help but wonder how Wang Yi himself died.

As is well known, Munetaka’s father himself had survived smallpox as a child, so I have to imagine that the loss of his son was especially devastating for Masamune, who wasn’t able to leave Kyoto until two months later, owing to obligations to the court and the shogun. Despite this, retired shogun Tokugawa Hidetada came to offer personal condolences, as did many others to Masamune’s estate in Kyoto. It was during this time that Masamune received his highest court rank– Chūnagon, or Middle Councilor– but the honor must have rung especially hollow coming in the midst of the loss of a son.

When at last he could leave, Masamune wrote the following poem to the imperial prime minister:

kyou idete

asu yori nochi wa

sode no tsuyu

hosu koto araji

akasu wakare ni

I set out today,

and from tomorrow on

I shall not dry the dew on my sleeves

to make plain my parting

“Dew on sleeves”– “sode no tsuyu”– is a well established poetic allusion to weeping. I think we can get a sense of just how deeply his son’s loss had shaken the man.

By the time Masamune returned to Sendai, Munetaka was already buried. Junshi– following one’s lord in death– was forbidden at the time, and Masamune made a personal request of one of his vassals, Takeyama Shuri, to stop any of Munetaka’s retainers who may have wanted to do so. But this was in vain, and ten of Munetaka’s retainers did indeed follow their master in death. Munetaka’s wetnurse, Lady O-Acha, was first among them, and is still the only woman during the history of Sendai domain to commit junshi. Also following Munetaka in death were his chief councilor Fukuchi Ukon, as well as Akasaka Hyōbu, Takahashi Seizaburō, Aburai Gorōsuke, Higa Jūzō, Arimi Kanpei, Kayano Gonshichi, Sato Gonshirō, Sai Tango, who had all been on duties that kept them especially close to him.

Munetaka and his ten retainers who committed junshi rest in Ryutoin, a temple that still stands in the town of Murata, Miyagi Prefecture. And up on Kattamine Shrine on Mount Zaō, which hasn’t erupted since April 16, 1940, there remains a small memorial mound called Uemon-zuka, where Munetaka and Wang Yi made their pact with the mountain. There are several generations of monuments to Munetaka around here, built in the style of Japanese Buddhist gravestones. Currently standing the tallest is one that dates to Showa 42– 1967– and is a black stone monument bearing the original Date crest– three vertical bands in a circle– carries the inscription Date Munetaka-kō Myōgan no Seki, written in the calligraphic hand of Takahashi Shintarō, then governor of Miyagi Prefecture. It’s a little hard to translate myōgan succinctly, but the inscription means Site of where Lord Date Munetaka Made his Life-Offering Plea.

Two of the memorials to Date Munetaka at Uemonzuka. Photo by Hiroyuki Sato. (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons, CC 3.0)

Even all these years later, the people of what used to be the Date lands remember him, and the bargain he made.


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