(Friday Night History) Kōtōdai Park

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A view of Higashi Nibancho avenue during the Sendai Aoba Matsuri festival. Kotodai Park is to the left. (Image PD)

Sendai, capital of Miyagi Prefecture, is known today as the City of Trees (Mori no Miyako 杜の都 in Japanese). It has no shortage of parks and other green spaces. Some of them are very old, like the old growth forest on the north and west sides of Mount Aoba. But others are newly planted during the postwar reconstruction boom. And in the heart of downtown, just north of the Sendai Station complex, is Kōtōdai Park– Kōtōdai-kōen in Japanese. One theory of its naming origin is that because it was like an elevated platform (kōdai) compared to the then-center of town (Bashō’s Crossing, in what’s now Kokubun-chō district), it was called Kōtōdai. The local dialect rendered this as “Kodoonodee,” in the Edo period. There’s a famous bandshell and amphitheater there, that even fans of anime will recognize from Wake Up, Girls! Like elsewhere in town, there are many zelkova trees in particular, a tree which is one of the natural symbols of the city as well as the prefecture. There were buildings on this site before, but in the wake of the 1945 bombings of Sendai, they were destroyed, and the area was turned into a park, which it remains today.

And we can get a hint of its earlier importance in the fact that the park is ringed by three different sets of office complexes: the Miyagi Prefectural hall, the Sendai City Hall, and the Aoba Ward office.

It was once the site of Yōkendō, the preeminent domain school in Date lands. Established in 1736 as the Gakumonjo, it moved to what’s now Kōtōdai Park in 1761, and received its best known name of Meirin Yōkendō, or Yōkendō for short, in 1772 (Meiwa 9). It was one of the major domain schools in Edo period Japan, albeit not as famous as places like Mito domain’s Kodokan Academy or Sakura domain’s Juntendo Academy or Aizu domain’s Nisshinkan Academy. A domain school– hankō 藩校 in Japanese– is the institution that trained a feudal domain’s vassals in scholarly, military, and sometimes practical arts. This was where a domain would do the work of training up its next generations of not only scholars but also administrators and in the late Edo period, its military leaders. Some domains would send these schools’ exceptional graduates on to further postgraduate work at the Shoheizaka Academy, the Shogunate’s preeminent educational institution. In some domains, the domain school wasn’t open to retainers of all ranks, leaving foot soldiers and other low-ranking retainers to study at temple schools alongside their commoner neighbors. This isn’t too surprising– longtime listeners of the podcast and readers of its earlier thread-only form might remember me talking about how the definition of what constituted a warrior was subjective, and varied, depending on which sub-stratum of the caste that you asked. But for most of its history, Yokendo was open to warriors of all ranks. Sendai domain being as big and decentralized as it was, there was more than one school for warriors in Date lands– Yubikan is a famous case of an academy which educated the vassals of one of the senior retainers of the Date, the Date family of Iwadeyama. But the central, most prominent school open for all warriors in Sendai domain was Yōkendō.

Yōkendō was for 56 years and three successive holders of the office of rector (Gakutō), overseen by members of the scholarly Ōtsuki family: Ōtsuki Heisen, Ōtsuki Jukusai, and Ōtsuki Bankei. The Ōtsuki family produced many scholars and physicians in service to both the house of Date as well as to the Tokugawa Shogunate. They and their scholarly connections were responsible for driving some of Yōkendō’s particularly pioneering work in engineering, shipbuilding, medicine, and even foreign studies. Russian studies in Japan began at Yōkendō, and was a policy instituted in light of how the Date forces constantly bumped into imperial Russian expeditions during coast guard duty in Ezochi, or what’s now Hokkaido, the Kuriles, and southern Sakhalin. Much later, just before the Boshin War, Yōkendō also had English language classes. In addition, thanks to these connections and interests as well as the ruling Date family’s long history of scholarly pursuits, the school not only possessed an extensive library in scholarly and military works in Japanese, Dutch, Russian, and English, but once also boasted one of Japan’s foremost libraries of Chinese classics and religious texts, which was housed in Ryūhōji temple, next door to Ōsaki Hachiman Shrine, one of the city’s preeminent shrines to Hachiman, the battle kami.

The school had many noted graduates even in the Edo period. Takano Chōei (1804-1850) is of particular note; he was a physician and scholar of Dutch studies in the early to mid 19th century. He was born into a family serving one of the Date daimyo’s senior vassals, the Date family of Mizusawa. After getting his start at Yōkendō, Chōei went on to study in Nagasaki under the Prussian doctor Philipp Franz von Siebold, where among his classmates was scholar and painter Watanabe Kazan (1793-1841).

Portrait of Takano Choei by Tsubaki Chinzan (1801-1854) (Image PD)

But in modern Japan, quite possibly the single most famous Yōkendō alumnus was Ōtsuki Fumihiko (1847-1928), the son of one of the school’s rectors. After a course of study at Yōkendō that included English study, he saw service as a staff officer during the Boshin War. Later, he went on to earn a Ph.D.– one of the first Japanese people to earn a western style doctorate. And in an act that helped revolutionize the development of modern Japanese, Ōtsuki Fumihiko compiled one of the first modern Japanese dictionaries– Genkai 言海, or Sea of Words– in 1891. He followed this up with Daigenkai, or Great Sea of Words, which was published posthumously in multiple volumes from 1932 to 1937. He was also involved in the editing of Sendai Sōshō, a multivolume compendium of major primary source material, legal records, and genealogical information pertaining to the old Sendai domain, and you can read it today on Archive.org

Dr. Ōtsuki Fumihiko in later years.

And what of the school that molded generations of young Sendai vassals?

Unlike other domain schools that kept their names and just became modern universities and high schools largely unaltered, Yōkendō did not survive in its former form. The staff and some of the assets, including what survived of its library, were absorbed by several new institutions in the 1870s. They are now part of Tohoku University, the preeminent higher education institution in modern Sendai. But that’s not where our story ends.

After the Boshin War and the disestablishment of the domains, the government instituted the modern system of prefectures, pushing them through several phases of consolidation until their current count of 47. Many of these were headquartered in newly vacated castles, but Sendai’s Aoba Castle was already occupied as the headquarters of the imperial army’s Sendai Garrison (Sendai Chindai), later known as the Second Infantry Division. So, the prefectural government headquartered instead in Yōkendō’s old buildings, and remained in them until their replacement in a new building that was opened in Showa 6 (1931) and used until its replacement by a newer building, the current Miyagi Prefectural Hall, in 1986. While some buildings of the old Yōkendō campus survived, most of them– still built in the traditional manner out of wood, tile, and plaster, did not survive Sendai’s firebombing in the summer of 1945. 

“Before the Gate of the Miyagi Prefectural Office” by Takahashi Yuichi (1828-1894, painted 1881) (Image PD)

As I record this, the COVID-19 pandemic continues, and those of us who are not already in Japan cannot enter Japan. But if you’re already in Japan listening to this as it newly goes up, or if you’re listening to this at a later date when international travel is a thing again, you can see one last remnant of the old Yōkendō campus, in Sendai. Visit Taishin-in temple in Aramachi district. The back gate, which bears the Date crest along its ridgepole, is the school’s main gate. For podcast listeners, check out the photo in the accompanying blogpost. I saw it briefly when I was there in 2005. It’s a little bit hidden away, on the far side of the temple’s cemetery, but well worth the visit to pause, in the shadow of its eaves, and contemplate the students that once passed through those portals.

Photo of the former Yokendo gate, now at Taishin-in temple. Photo by Keydaimon, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. (CC-3.0)

Not too shabby a history for one of modern Sendai’s most beloved parks.

I’m Nyri, and this has been Friday Night History. Now, questions?


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