(Friday Night History) Brewing and the Gods

Wall of sake casks at Meiji Jingu. (Image PD)

If the old folktales are any indicator, the gods and other supernatural beings of Japan love their sake. And sake is also an important part of Shinto ritual today. So, this week, I want to turn a little bit to talking about how the production of sake– and vinegar– and the administration of shrine and temple districts, overlaps with and changes the usual systems of political jurisdiction in the Edo period. Or to put it more plainly, where the gods are involved, even the Shogunate’s and domains’ usual rules don’t quite apply.

The Tokugawa Shogunate and many feudal domains had an administrative posting called the Office of Temples and Shrines (Jisha Bugyosho), headed by a Magistrate (bugyo) of Temples and Shrines. In the Shogunate, this was the administrator responsible for government oversight of the lands, clergy, commoners, and dependents of land belonging to or immediately surrounding Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples in Tokugawa house land and cities. Why, you may well ask, institute an office like this rather than trust these institutions to be self-governing? We can get a sense of this when we consider that temples and shrines before the Edo period were in some cases also very heavily armed, and could thus impose their political will at the point of spears or guns just as easily as a daimyo could. Even the powerful Oda Nobunaga, the first of the 16th century’s famous Three Great Unifiers, had a hard time fighting the armed temples of Ishiyama Honganji and Hieizan Enryakuji; Nobunaga rather infamously resorted to burning the mountain that Enryakuji sat on, with all of its people inside. So, temples and shrines that were too independent were a liability for the Shogunate as much as they were for the myriad feudal domains. The Shogunate issued many injunctions for everyone from commoners to the imperial court to the clergy. On that last point, it isssued a series of injunctions, starting in the early 17th century and reaffirmed at the start of each shogun’s reign, which regulated and circumscribed the activities and independence of religious institutions in Japan regardless of their particular affiliation. While doctrine and internal organization was left to the religious institutions themselves, this was as far as their independence went. Given the events of the preceding century, all of them were a potential liability. In the interest of overseeing their affairs from the governmental level, and ensuring that the larger temple-shrine complexes were never again left unwatched long enough to be a military threat, the Office of Temples and Shrines was instituted.

The Shogunate’s iteration of the Office of Temples and Shrines had four magistrates assigned concurrently, chosen from the ranks of Tokugawa vassal (fudai) daimyo and reassigned on a regular basis. For a fudai daimyo, this was not the highest office one could aim for, and while there were plenty of Temple and Shrines Magistrates who were capable administrators, most of them did not remain in the office, and went on to more senior postings in the Shogunate administration. The Office reported directly to the shogun or the head Senior Councilor who managed the shogun’s affairs, rather than to the Senior Council, to whom most of the other Shogunate administrative offices answered. Because the magistrates were daimyo, they populated the Office’s positions with people seconded from the ranks of their own retainers. On the domainal level, there was a similar division of jurisdiction when it came to where this office (which usually had the same name as the one in the Shogunate government) fit in a given domain’s apparatus and to whom it reported. So, Sendai domain, too, had a Temple and Shrine Magistrate who oversaw the land and people affiliated with those institutions, while in the Sendai Castle town, the city magistrate (or magistrates) oversaw the governance of the commoner neighborhoods, with other administrators responsible for the warrior quarters. On the level of the average city-dwelling commoner, this meant that most non-warriors lived in jurisdictions where they were governed by a city magistrate, while those in temple and shrine neighborhoods and on their lands were governed by the Magistrate of Temples and Shrines. This difference in jurisdiction was put to creative use by people in need. Even in popular depictions of the period today, you sometimes see a person on the run from the city magistrate’s authorities, taking sanctuary in temple or shrine land in order to seek justice from different, higher, arguably more impartial authority.

These neighborhoods also could and often did have privileges that the regular commoner neighborhoods did not. So, for example, let’s consider the three neighborhoods of Miyamachi, Kameoka-cho, and Hachiman-cho, in the old Sendai castle town. These were the neighborhoods of three major shrines that enjoyed the direct patronage of the Date clan: in order, Tosho-gu, Kameoka Hachiman-gu, and Osaki Hachiman-gu. While shrines and their people were naturally under the jurisdiction of the Office of Temples and Shrines in the Date lands as their counterparts in the Shogunate territories might be, in this case so too were the neighborhoods around them. And a privilege that two of the three enjoyed was brewing.

Just like today, a would-be brewery needed to get the appropriate permits from its local government to run a legal operation– after all, if you’re running a brewery on the sly, the result is moonshine. So, for a neighborhood to have permission to host breweries was quite a perk! So, Miyamachi was the one neighborhood in the Sendai castle town that had permission to brew sake, and Kameoka-cho was the neighborhood with permission to brew vinegar– that is, rice vinegar, of the sort you might still cook with today.

Brewing, like we said at the beginning, is something that’s of particular interest to the gods and important to the running of shrine ritual, as it’s a common type of ritual offering. It’s also something that was in the interest of the warrior caste to control, because it relied on rice production, which was the way that a feudal domain paid its retainers most of their stipends and was how the domains’ incomes– and thus the taxes and labor that they owed to the Shogunate– were rated. Sake was also important to the domain’s functions and its military needs as well. As we discussed in recent episodes, Sendai Castle itself had a brewery, where shortly after its establishment, Masamune personally experimented with some of what became standard sake for official Date functions. So when the domain granted special permission for brewing sake and things like vinegar that derived from sake, it was no small matter, because this was a privilege it usually guarded.

In fact, there’s a pretty noteworthy case of the house of Date doing this, which continues to the present. Stay with me, because this story’s a good one.

Shiogama Shrine– Shiogama jinja, in Japanese– is a big and very old shrine in the coastal city of Shiogama, Miyagi Prefecture. It is the ichinomiya, the preeminent shrine, of the former Mutsu Province. It sat immediately northeast of what used to be the seat of imperial administration in the region in the early Heian era, which is the modern city of Tagajo, Miyagi Prefecture. The city of Shiogama, as both transport hub and a fishing port, grew around the shrine, and it predates Sendai by several centuries. It’s always been a fishing port, but it gets its name from the salt kettles (shiogama) that were historically the divine vessels in the shrine’s inner sanctum. According to shrine lore, the god of Shiogama shrine “is the kami that first cooked salt in our country. His salt kettle remains to this day as the shrine’s shintai. Its miraculous virtue is difficult to put down in ink.” In other words, the lore has it that the gods of the shrine taught the local humans how to extract salt from seawater. The same source claims that in the Edo period, there were four salt kettles that served as its divine vessels, where there were had once been seven.

The Northern Fujiwara, the Emishi-Japanese rulers of a quasi-independent Tohoku region a millennium ago, knew this shrine and cared for it during the late Heian era. And several centuries later, when the house of Date took possession of the region with aspirations to the mantle of leadership once claimed by the Northern Fujiwara, it too supported the upkeep of the shrine and even carried a banner representing its gods in the suite of banners that accompanied the Date field headquarters into battle.

Date Yoshimura (1680-1752, r. 1708-1743). [Image PD]

One major refurbishing of Shiogama Shrine was completed in 1724, during the reign of the 5th generation Date daimyo, Date Yoshimura (1680-1752, ruled 1708- 1743). As the daimyo following the disastrous Date Disturbance which nearly destroyed the domain through internal discord, Yoshimura is chiefly remembered today for having been the lord who took personal involvement in the domain’s affairs and supervised its reestablishment on firm financial footing through things like land reclamation and the restructuring of the domain’s administration. He also oversaw the repair and reconstruction of landmarks including Shiogama Shrine. It was immediately following the completion of this construction project that Yoshimura ordered the brewing of a new type of sake for use at Shiogama Shrine’s ceremonies. This was overseen by the local Saura family, whose descendants still brew the same sake today. It’s called Urakasumi, they’re not sponsoring this podcast, but let me tell you, it’s my favorite sake ever. It’s still brewed in a brewery that’s built around the Edo period brewery. I went up the tall, narrow steps of the storehouse in 2005, and I remember the scent of the sake fermenting in these huge, wooden casks, it had a faint hint of apple.

Fortunately, not even the 2011 tsunami stopped Urakasumi. The Date government is gone, the old systems of city and temple magistrate are gone, but that sake is still in production to this day, and still relatively straightforward to get ahold of even in North America. Meanwhile, back in Sendai, Miyamachi no longer brews sake, nor does Kameoka-cho brew vinegar. But in quite the amusing twist, the most reliable online source of news on Kameoka Hachiman-gu is the website of Abe Sake-ten, a Kameoka-cho sake vendor.

I think the gods would approve.

Sources

  • Abe Sake-ten. http://abesake.com/ Accessed 8 April 2021.
  • RHP Mason and JG Caiger. A History of Japan: Revised Edition (Vermont: Charles E. Tuttle, 1997), p. 195.
  • Mihara Ryōkichi. Kyōdoshi Sendai Mimibukuro. (Sendai: Hōbundō, Showa 58 [1983]), pp. 123-126.
  • Sasama Yoshihiko. Edo Machibugyo Jiten. (Tokyo: Kashiwa Shobo, 1995), pp. 2-3.
  • “Shiogama engi.” Shinto Taikei v. .27, pp. 118-119.
  • Conrad Totman. Politics in the Tokugawa Bakufu, 1600-1843. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1967), pp. 40, 42, 137, 182.
  • “Urakasumi no Rekishi: Hajime ni, Vol. 1.” https://www.urakasumi.com/about-us/history/2014/08/post-5.html Accessed 8 April 2021.

(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?

Sources

(Friday Night History) Gyutan

Gyūtan as part of a set meal. (Image PD)

They say that necessity is the mother of invention, and this is especially true in war and postwar reconstructions. Today’s subject, gyūtan, is the result of that kind of invention. Gyūtan is a portmanteau– gyu is beef, while tan is a transliteration of tongue– in other words, grilled, thinly sliced cow tongue. Today, gyūtan is one of the most recognizable quintessentially Sendai food items. But unlike zunda mochi and Sendai miso, it’s relatively recent– even if the history of oxen in Sendai is not so recent.

Let’s sidebar, because in order to talk about oxen in Sendai we need to talk about Date Masamune’s contingency plans for the likelihood of taking over Japan in the 17th century.

(Just wait. It’ll make sense!)

Four centuries ago, shortly after founding the castle town that became the modern city of Sendai, Date Masamune had aspirations of overthrowing the Tokugawa shogun and ruling Japan himself. If he was going to do that, however, he needed to make provision for the mikado– the emperor– from whom the ultimate authority to rule Japan originated. The Tokugawa family had made provision for this, which it ultimately maintained for the duration of the Edo period. Maintaining the goodwill of the emperor and the imperial court was essential to ensuring that the emperor continued to endorse the legitimacy of a would-be shogun or other kind of hegemon (as had been Toyotomi Hideyoshi).

The thing to remember, though, is that the ruling emperor needed extremely specific, extremely expensive provision for transport, lodging, food, and pretty much everything. Rather central to this was the ritual view that the emperor’s person, their body, was sacrosanct. And I’m not just talking in vague terms, here– I mean extremely sacrosanct to the point that a ruling emperor could not shave or trim their nails because blades were not allowed to touch the person of a ruling emperor. So with that understood, the place an emperor could sleep in also had to be special, not just the head of the room but a raised chamber or dais even more exalted than that. The most exalted room where the ruling lord or his family would stay was the jōdan-no-ma (upper room), but even they didn’t get the very highest place: a room for the Emperor and their family which was the jō-jōdan no ma (upper upper room).

So. To prepare for the emperor’s potential (and for awhile at least, quite likely) visit, Masamune had a jō-jōdan no ma built in Sendai Castle and another in Zuiganji, one of his family’s Buddhist temples. 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 in the residence of the Moniwa family, a senior vassal family in service to the Date who had quite a fabulous estate of their own in the Sendai castle town. So to build a room like this in Sendai Castle itself, when the Date family would receive no other outsiders, should say something about how seriously Masamune took these matters.

In both cases, this chamber was so exalted that even our man Masamune, fourth wealthiest daimyo in Japan, did not dare enter. He would open it once a year for cleaning, dress in his court garb, and bow reverently toward it before closing the door again.

But this wasn’t all. He also kept a herd of oxen in a barn in Haranomachi, in the Sendai Castle town, expressly meant to pull the emperor’s hōren 鳳輦. A hōren was a carriage made for the use of the Emperor and their immediate family. It could take the form of a palanquin borne by human bearers, but one type of it, which Masamune was concerned with here, was ox-drawn. 

Neither the castle’s jō-jōdan no ma nor the oxen were ever called upon for their original purpose. The herd of several dozen oxen, in the absence of an imperial visit, were maintained in their barn in Haranomachi by Masamune’s descendants, and used for the far more practical purposes of hauling official goods of Date retainers in the Sendai area as well as on duty alongside the local canals. Meanwhile, the first emperor to visit Sendai was Meiji, during his Tohoku tour in Meiji 14 (1881). He stayed at the other jō-jōdan no ma at Zuiganji Temple in Matsushima– by that point, Sendai Castle was headquarters of what became the 2nd Infantry Division and the old castle jo-jodan no ma no longer existed. I’ve seen this room in person, 15 years back, and it’s still marked, cordoned off, and carefully preserved.

Anyway, with all that said, this should give you an idea of how far back oxen go in greater Sendai. (Told ya it would make sense) But it was not the beginning of beef consumption– that wouldn’t come until after the Restoration. So oxen weren’t new in the area in the late 1940s, when gyūtan was invented.

Let’s fast forward to 1948. The Second World War was finally over, and the US occupation was in its third year, at the tail end of what MacArthur’s report on the Occupation referred to “the military phase” of the Occupation. There were GIs at bases all around Miyagi Prefecture; a US Army Japan list I found noted 13 bases in the prefecture, most of which are still Japan Self Defense Forces bases today, like Kasumi-no-me Airbase or the Ojojihara Maneuver Area. Most notably and centrally placed was Camp Schimmelpfennig, a base in the Kawauchi district, inside the Hirose River’s bend, on the site of Sendai Castle’s outer baileys and the former headquarters of the IJA’s 2nd Infantry Division. It doesn’t exist anymore; SDF forces in the Sendai city limits are mostly at Kasumi-no-me Airbase, but some of its buildings are still extant as part of Tohoku University’s Kawauchi Campus.

A robust logistical network brought the GIs at those bases the necessities of day to day life. They were not allowed to eat the local produce– my doctoral advisor, who did a tour of duty in Japan not long after the Occupation ended, mentioned more than once that there was a standing order for GIs to not eat local produce because nightsoil was still a common fertilizer and thus considered a potential health risk. He once told me that one of the turning points of his life was realizing that he could, in fact, eat the local produce off-base in Japan and not die of dysentery. As for meat, as there isn’t very much arable land in Japan, beef had to be imported for the Occupation troops’ culinary use, just like beef in general even today has to be imported for the general public there. Generally speaking, these GIs were living mostly in a bubble on their own bases, and they generated a lot of food waste while everyday Japanese people were by and large still food insecure.

So as a result, a great deal of innovation happened in order to address that urgent need by the civilian population. Remember, this is also the era that gave us instant ramen, the most enduring and ubiquitous form of that innovation. Ando Momofuku, a Taiwanese-Japanese entrepreneur, witnessed the hardship and food scarcity in early postwar Japan and developed instant ramen as an alternative to the bread that the Ministry of Health had been encouraging people to eat. His rationale was that it would have wider appeal with the Japanese public, as bread’s history in Japan was relatively short, and noodles’ history was far longer– his noodles went on to feed not only people in need in the postwar reconstruction, but of course went on to be a staple food worldwide, and beloved even by the denizens of many a college dorm.

Meanwhile in Sendai, a chef originally from Yamagata named Sano Keishirō who ran a grilled chicken restaurant called Aji Tasuke realized that the US mess halls around greater Sendai were getting a lot of beef, but throwing out the tongues and tails. He was able to buy them for the proverbial pennies on the dollar, and experiment with them in dishes at his restaurant over the next few years. While oxtail is a well known dish, as in oxtail soup, this didn’t do too well in Sendai. But after that early period of experimentation, gyūtan debuted on Aji Tasuke’s menu in 1950. Marinated overnight, then barbecued over charcoal, it’s excellent bar food. It did amazingly well, and started a local and then national phenomenon.

Today, along with things like zunda mochi and Sendai miso, gyūtan is established as a renowned item of Sendai cuisine, in grilled form on its own or served as part of donburi. It’s a little tricky to make at home because of how hard the cow tongue meat is to cut, but I’ve done it successfully before, with a good knife and by putting the meat in the freezer for a little bit, first. Depending on where you get your meat, you can find cow tongue pre-sliced in some places. Namiko Chen of Just One Cookbook, my go-to for a lot of Japanese recipes, has a recipe for it here https://www.justonecookbook.com/gyutan-bbq-beef-tongue/ — if you’re listening to the podcast version, follow the link in the blogpost. And when international travel to Japan becomes possible again, drop by Aji Tasuke– its main location is still in downtown Sendai and still serving up gyūtan today, at Ichibancho 4-chome 4-13, in Aoba ward, and in the meanwhile, you can check out its website at aji-tasuke.co.jp 

And something tells me even Date Masamune, who built a barn of oxen for a longshot bid to welcome the Emperor upon taking over Japan, would’ve approved of Sano Keishirō’s ingenuity.

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

Now– questions?

Sources

(Friday Night History) Zunda mochi

“Toasted mochi,” by Yashima Gakutei (1786-1868) [image in PD]

Food and food supply is an important part of winning a war. After all, a saying attributed to either Frederick the Great or Napoleon Bonaparte has it that “an army marches on its stomach.” Meanwhile in the 16th century, the warlord and first of Japan’s Three Great Unifiers, Oda Nobunaga, also observed that if your stomach hurts, you can’t go to war. Therefore, in the interest of going to war with the best food and food-adjacent equipment for supporting an army on the march, there has always been innovation in military cuisine, because soldiers are human, and regardless of the era, food has always been a basic human need. In the US Army, these needs are currently overseen by the Soldier Sustainment Directorate which is part of Combat Capabilities Development Command Soldier Center, which in turn is a tenant unit of the United States Army Natick Soldier Systems Center, in Natick, Massachusetts. The Soldier Sustainment Directorate describes its mission as follows:

“The Soldier Center’s Sustainment Directorate executes customer focused research, development, engineering, and testing to ensure Warfighters are equipped with state of the art equipment capabilities. The Directorate is focused on developing novel capabilities and providing engineering support in the aerial delivery, combat feeding, and expeditionary maneuver disciplines.”

In other words, driving innovation in military food and rations is positioned alongside innovations in aerial delivery– as one form of delivery for that food as well as for other needed supplies– as well as engineering support for manufacturing things like walls and tents and other things necessary for housing in the field.

So, food is clearly an important point of interest for this particular present-day army as it has been for others.

There are many cases in history of military needs that have driven culinary advancements that you probably would recognize, because these military innovations eventually work their way out into the broader civilian population. Spam, Worcestershire sauce, Japanese curry, hot pot, and other foods we hardly bat an eyelash at today have their origins in military cuisine. If you’d like to learn more about US military food innovation and how it unfluences US food production and consumption, check out Anastacia Marx de Salcedo’s 2015 book Combat-Ready Kitchen: How the U.S. Military Shapes the Way You Eat.

In last week’s episode, we talked about how the Date clan’s military needs for miso that tasted good and lasted for a long time drove the popularization of the variant of red miso that’s now known as Sendai miso. But it isn’t just staples that military exigencies and research is invested in: sometimes, war will even make dessert.

US meals-ready-to-eat (MREs) include desserts like muffins, lemon pound cake, or cinnamon buns, in shelf-stable packaging aimed at survivability and longevity before being opened for use. Meanwhile, larger Unitized Group Ration, A Option (UGR-A) rations that require some refrigeration and the support of a field kitchen even feature things like cheesecake bites and poundcake.

So like I said last week: let’s go to Sendai and this time, let’s talk dessert.

Zunda mochi remains famous as a local cuisine in Miyagi Prefecture in general and Sendai city in particular. It appears in different forms with slightly different names throughout northern Honshu like jinda or jindan or nuta, but it’s ultimately all the same thing, and it’s fundamentally very simple. It features mashed, sweetened soybeans (edamame) made into a paste and then served over pounded rice mochi. But as was the case last week with Sendai miso, this too was a product of the Date armies and their culinary needs. While it might not be obvious without some awareness of the local dialect, its origins are alluded to in its name.

Tohoku dialects are sometimes derisively called “zuuzuu dialects” for their voiced consonants and how the phoneme “zu” frequently appears where it wouldn’t in standard Japanese. For instance, “mata” as in “again” is read “Madzu” まづ in Sendai dialect. So, while “mochi” is modern standard Japanese for a pounded rice cake, Zunda is not.

Well then what is it?

Turns out, this is unclear. But as a scholar of the house of Date and the lands it inhabited, I can tell you the version of the story that I first received. According to this version of the story, it comes down to the following: “zunda” is a contraction of “zundadzu,” known far more readily especially to modern practitioners of Japanese martial arts as jintachi: a campaign sword. Which raises the obvious question: why name a dessert after a sword meant for use on campaign?

In last week’s episode we talked a little bit about how Date Masamune was unusual among his lordly peers owing to his interest in cooking. This is attested to in several period sources. One of them is the book Date Masamune Genkoroku, a collection of his off-the-cuff comments on history, life, and current events, along with observations about his life and the circumstances of his private living accommodations and daily schedule, compiled by Kimura Uemon, who was his close attendant later in life. Another is Masamune-ki, Masamune’s first biography written in 1638 just a few years after his death by his cousin Date Shigezane. Masamune-ki begins with the man’s earliest campaigns, and chronicles the rest of his career, and while battles are front and center especially in the earlier chapters, this biography also includes reproduced correspondence, commentary on how the locations of some things have changed as time, weather, and human intervention have rearranged the terrain, and also commentary on the fine details of things like food that was served at a given setting.

We can even see a glimpse of Masamune’s philosophy about food in his last will to his descendants. It’s short, so I think it bears quoting in full, here. Translation is my own.

仁に過ぎれば弱くなる。
義に過ぎれば固くなる。
礼に過ぎれば諂となる。
智に過ぎれば嘘をつく。
信に過ぎれば損をする。
気ながく心穏やかにして、よろずに倹約を用い金を備うべし。
倹約の仕方は不自由を忍ぶにあり、この世に客に来たと思えば何の苦もなし。
朝夕の食事は、うまからずとも誉めて食うべし。
元来、客の身なれば好き嫌いは申されまい。
今日の行を送り、子孫兄弟によく挨拶して、娑婆の御暇申するがよし。
“Excessive benevolence will lead to weakness.
Excessive rectitude will lead to hardness.
Excessive ceremony will lead to flattery.
Excessive wisdom will lead to lying.
Excessive faith will lead to damage
Have great patience and a calm heart, and be thrifty:
set aside money for all eventualities.
The means to thrift is by enduring inconvenience.
If you treat your place in this world as that of a guest, then you will have no trouble.
Even if your meals are not tasty, praise them and eat them.
If you treat your usual place in this world as that of a guest, then you will find no room for likes and dislikes.
Do today what you can do today, keep up with your family ties, and when your time comes at last, take leave of the world”

Note that line near the end, there: “Even if your meals are not tasty, praise them and eat them.” This seems a little strange when you consider that Masamune is also the man who is on record as having fussed over the specifics of preparation and seasonality of which foods to present in the meals served at official functions and major holidays. But I think it likely speaks to his experience as someone who was a product of an era of constant warfare. If war’s always somewhere in your peripheral vision, then when it comes to your everyday food, does it matter whether or not it tastes great? Whether or not you’re actually on the battlefield or in encampment or at home in the castle town, what matters is nutrition and being able to get back to work– and if necessary, being able to get back to the fight.

So! with all of that said, let’s circle back to zunda and pick up with the Date version of the story. This version has it that while on campaign, Masamune improvised this in the field, smashing the boiled edamame into a paste with the flat of his sword, in which form it could be easily served over mochi. Because he used a jintachi, in the local dialect, this became zundadzu, and from thence, we get the modern word “zunda.”

While there are a number of different versions of zunda’s origin that dispute this, I think that  given Masamune’s attested interest in cooking according to multiple sources including his own words recorded by others, the story is at least plausible, even if it isn’t actually uncontested.

Is it true? I don’t know if it is. Does one single version of the story particularly matter, as long as there’s zunda mochi to eat? I’d say no.

Now, unlike Sendai miso, Zunda mochi is a little easier to make from scratch, because its ingredients are a little bit more ubiquitous. If you can find edamame and mochi, you can make it right at home. Hey, after all, it was field-expedient dessert! Here’s a recipe for reference for those of you who want to give making this a shot — for the podcast listeners, follow the link in the blogpost. And let me back up a moment here and just try to be absolutely clear– just to be ABSOLUTELY, POSITIVELY clear– don’t make it with a sword. Please please please, spare your sword and spare your kitchen– we have modern tools actually made for the kitchen that can do what you need to do to make zunda happen. But if for some unfathomable reason you do make it with a sword, rest assured that I marvel at your badassery and dedication in the pursuit of this field-expedient historical dessert.

Or at least, of one version of its origin story.

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

Now– questions?

Sources

(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?

Sources

(Friday Night History) A Forest of English

Last week, we talked about the Phaeton Incident, where during the Napoleonic Wars in 1808, Fleetwood Broughton Reynolds Pellew took his Royal Navy warship into Nagasaki harbor, kidnapped a couple of Dutch merchants, and almost provoked a war because of a lack of common language. While the incident ultimately only took the life of then-Nagasaki magistrate Matsudaira Yasuhide, it exposed the Shogunate’s weakness to protect against foreign incursion, as well as its interpreters’ lack of any meaningful familiarity with the English language. The Shogunate immediately changed the military disposition of forces in the Nagasaki area, as well as the signalling system used by the coast guard fortifications, but it also turned its attention to improving its translators’ familiarity with English.

A rather smug-looking Fleetwood Broughton Reynolds Pellew. Image PD

Now, before we talk about English, we have to talk a little bit about European languages in Japan up to that point. By 1808, the European language with the longest history in Japan was Portuguese. It had been the language of some of the friars who had visited Japan during the 16th century, though the Portuguese and Spaniards were later banned from Japan, and Portuguese it remains the source of several Japanese loan words, including ubiquitous ones like “tempura” and “pan.” There was also some awareness of Russian by 1808, as the Russian imperial navy made several forays into Ezochi (modern Hokkaido) and encountered troops of northern Honshu domains sent there for coast guard duty. But while there had been a few Englishmen in 17th century Japan, and indeed they’d once had a trading post in Nagasaki themselves, they’d lost interest and left the Dutch– who’d been in Japan since the very late 16th century– the sole European country trading with Japan.

By the 19th century, the study of European language, technology, medicine, and more, was all shorthanded as rangaku– Dutch studies– and regardless of the country of origin of a given thing, it was the Dutch studies scholars that were the authority on it and who usually worked with it. After the Phaeton Incident, the Shogunate established the Office for Translation of Barbarian Books (Bansho Wage Goyō), and it would be rangaku scholars who were significantly involved in its operation: Takahashi Kageyasu, Baba Teiyū, Ōtsuki Gentaku, Aochi Rinsō were its central figures; it would later become the Office for Research of Barbarian Books (Bansho Shirabesho). Meanwhile, the Shogunate also ordered the compilation of English dictionaries and the general improvement of its interpreters’ ability in English.

And it was to one such scholar, Motoki Shōzaemon, to whom fell the task of leading the compilation of the first Japanese-English dictionary. Motoki, son of an earlier Nagasaki based interpreter named Motoki Yoshinaga (1735-1794), was part of a family had been in the translation business for generations– first from Portuguese, then from Dutch. Motoki’s translations included Nieuwe richt der bosschilgieterij kunst by Gerrit van der Torren, which was translated as Kaigan Hojutsu Biyo, and was one of the texts on foreign military methods that influenced the Shogunate’s attempts at military reform.

Motoki Shōzaemon’s father, Motoki Yoshinaga. Image in PD

Motoki studied English with Jan Cock Blomhoff (1779-1853), the director (opperhoofd) of the Dutch trading facility in Nagasaki, who had some command of English. Blomhoff succeeded Hendrik Doeff, who we learned about last week as the embattled director of the facility during the years of the Napoleonic Wars, but had himself previously been a director of the same facility some years prior. Unlike any of his predecessors, on his second trip to Japan, Blomhoff went to Nagasaki with his wife Titia Bergsma, infant son Johannes, and Johannes’ wetnurse Petronella Muns, as well as an Indonesian maid named Marathy and a young male Javanese servant whose name I haven’t been able to track down. The household attracted the attention of the Japanese people it came in contact with, and Bergsma and Muns were the first Western women to have visited Japan, and were a popular topic of portraiture at the time.

Portrait of Blomhoff and family by Ishizaki Yūshi. Image in PD 

A product of Motoki’s study with Blomhoff was the compilation of A Japanese Interpretation of the English Language (Angeria Kokugo Wage 諳厄利亜国語和解, hereafter Interpretation) in 1811, soon followed by A Collection of English Words– or more literally, A Collected Forest of English (Angeria Gorin Taisei 諳厄利亜語林大成) in 1814. You can check out a fully digitized copy of Interpretation here: http://base1.nijl.ac.jp/iview/Frame.jsp?DB_ID=G0003917KTM&C_CODE=0091-027402 For their combined work in compiling Interpretation, the Shogunate rewarded Motoki and Blomhoff both. Motoki received 10 pieces of silver, while Blomhoff was presented with 50 bags of charcoal. 

Interpretation comprised ten volumes. It offers not just definitions but an introduction to the English alphabet, all of them Dutch-tinged owing to Motoki’s study with a non-native speaker. Parts of Interpretation are just words with a single word definition in Japanese, while other parts of it are more like a phrasebook. Some examples include– and I haven’t corrected these, so if you’re listening to the podcast, check out the blogpost to see the spellings, which are close but not quite right– “what time my one find you at home?” and “you shall be well come” “sir, I am much beholding to you that you do take that pains for me,” “It is true, Sir Palmer Fairbrun, all the town did much lamant for his death,” and “without doubt, it was a brave action, and to say the truth, the English fought as they uso to do, like lions.” Rather rough-hewn, and not quite a dictionary in the strictest sense– reading the scanned document, I find myself wondering just how much use the Shogunate honestly expected to get out of it. But Motoki built upon it in a few short years, presenting the Shogunate with A Forest of English a few years later in 1814. A Forest of English was upwards of 6000 words, and for this, he was again rewarded by the Shogunate, this time with fifteen pieces of silver. And unlike Interpretation, it was Japan’s first actual English-Japanese dictionary. This, like its predecessor, also had plenty of flaws, starting from the pronunciation, which remained Dutch-tinged.

Japanese study of English continued piecemeal mostly through books over the ensuing decades and improved in fits and starts. Visitors during those years, some of which overlapped with the No Second Thoughts order that we talked about in a recent episode, noted that there was some knowledge of English among Japanese interpreters whom they encountered. You might recall that during his July 1846 visit to Uraga attempting to open trade negotiations, US Commodore James Biddle was given a message in English from the Shogunate officials. This is how Sakamaki Shunzo reproduces it in his 1939 dissertation on Japan-US Relations:

According to the Japanese laws, the Japanese may not trade, except with the Dutch and Chinese. It won’t be allowed that America make a treaty with Japan or trade with her, as the same is not allowed to any other nation. Concerning strange lands, all things are fixed at Nangasacki, but not here in the bay ; therefore you must depart as quick as possible, and not come any more in Japan.

This is the English translation of a Japanese original which Sakamaki renders into English as follows.

At this time you are said to have requested saying that you wish to trade with our country. But, as the laws strictly forbid new intercourse and commerce with foreign nations, you should set sail at once. In recent years, several times have countries asked for trade, but these requests have been made in vain, and it will be the same with your country, no matter how many times you may come again. The national laws provide that matters concerning foreign countries shall be handled at Nagasaki, so that such matters are not handled here at Uraga. Never come again with requests, for there can be no settlement if you come here.

It wasn’t until Ranald MacDonald’s whirlwind visit– and subsequent incarceration in Nagasaki– in 1848 that English language instruction by a native speaker first came to Japan. Where Motoki’s study had been with a non-native speaker and study in the years that followed were either through more non-native speakers or alternatively the written word, MacDonald was at last able to offer pointers on improved grammar and spelling, and also correct pronunciation. He even notes that some of his students picked up American naval slang, words like “grog” and “shiver me timbers.”

Fourteen men studied with MacDonald while he waited under guard for the next American vessel to take him home. His students were Nishi Yoichirō, Uemura Sakushichirō, Nishi Keitarō, Ogawa Keijūrō, Shioya Tanesaburō, Nakayama Hyōma, Inomata Dennosuke, Shizuki Tatsuichirō, Iwase Yashirō, Hori Ichirō, Shige Takanosuke, Namura Tsunenosuke, Moriyama Einosuke, and Motoki Shōzaemon. Now, here I have to say, I was mistaken: this was not the same Motoki Shōzaemon, but rather the son of the one who compiled the dictionary– their names are pronounced the same but the “shō” of “Shōzaemon” spelled differently– this one’s name is spelled 昌左衛門 where his father’s was 庄左衛門. This Motoki Shōzaemon was the father of Motoki Shōzō (1824-1875), who continued the family tradition in study of English and work as a translator and interpreter for the Shogunate until its demise.

Today, of course, things are different. We can fire up an app or a browser and translate between Japanese and English and back again with near-instantaneous speed, or look up words we might be missing and do it just as fast. But the elder Motoki Shōzaemon’s Angeria Kokugo Wage was a beginning.

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

Now– questions?

Sources

(Friday Night History) The Phaeton Incident

Pictured: Phaeton as depicted by a Japanese artist. (source PD)

Of all the European people in 19th century Japanese history, one of the ones with the curious distinction of longest name had to have been Admiral Sir Fleetwood Broughton Reynolds Pellew. That’s spelled P-e-l-l-e-w. Pellew was Cornish, and came from a family with a naval tradition– indeed, he grew up on and around ships commanded by his father, Admiral Edward Pellew. In July 1808, at the young age of 19, the younger Pellew already had a navy career over a decade long, when he was given command of the 38-gun HMS Phaeton and thus immediately a frontline commander in an intercontinental war against the French Empire of Napoleon Bonaparte. Part of that empire– first as a client state from 1806 to 1810, then as a direct possession until 1813– was the Netherlands. As you might already know, the Netherlands was the only European power allowed to trade with Tokugawa Japan since Portugal and Spain were banned on religious grounds and the English lost interest, in the mid 17th century. And one of the Netherlands’ most far-flung outposts, under the control of the Dutch East India Company, was the trading station of Dejima, a little fan-shaped island in Nagasaki harbor.

Pellew’s mandate in 1808 to prosecute the war against the French Empire included Dutch targets that were under the nominal control of the Napoleonic puppet government, and the colonies and trading posts in that part of the world were run by the Dutch East India Company. With British sea control being so supreme at the time, the Dutch were chartering vessels from the US, which was neutral in this war, to handle resupply for the Dutch Pacific imperial posessions. So the British had the clear strategic advantage on the eve of this incident.

Fleetwood Broughton Reynolds Pellew. Image PD 

Nagasaki, of course, was the only place in Japan through which legal international trade was allowed during the Edo period. China, Korea, and Holland were the three countries with permission to send people through Nagasaki, and the city was a direct possession of the Tokugawa Shogunate, though at the territorial extreme of places under direct Shogunal control. Indeed, primarily responsible for the defense of Nagasaki Harbor were two nearby feudal clans, the Kuroda of Fukuoka domain and Nabeshima of Saga domain. These two domains rotated duty with a force of about a thousand at any given time. At the time of Phaeton’s arrival, Saga was on duty, but most of that force was absent, having left their posts under the assumption that nothing of note was going to happen that required their attention. This left a skeleton force of several dozen.

On the hunt for Dutch shipping, Phaeton arrived from Macao in the afternoon of the 4th, under Dutch colors, which drew the attention of the East India Company employees on Dejima. Their leader at the time was Hendrik Doeff, who’d held the post for several years amidst the Napoleonic wars and the attendant instability of regular shipping to and from Nagasaki. 

At about 5:30 PM on the 4th, Dirk Gozeman and Gerrit Schimmel. two Dutch officials. rowed out to Phaeton, accompanied by Japanese interpreters Nakayama Sakusaburo and Yokoyama Katsunojo and several others. It wasn’t until Phaeton lowered a boat and took the Japanese vessel in tow that it became obvious that it was a British and not Dutch vessel. While some Japanese crew leapt overboard and swam away, others including the interpreters didn’t. Pellew’s men let the remaining Japanese return to Nagasaki, keeping the two Dutch men as hostages. By 6, Phaeton moved to anchor off the small island of Takaboko-jima. 

Sitting just outside the bay and unsure of what waited in the bay, and whether a Dutch warship lay in wait, Pellew sent out small scouting craft to make observations. After 7:00, the scouts reported back. Apart from a few Chinese vessels, there was no sign of a Dutch man of war, and thus no military reason to do much of anything in the bay. But this is only the beginning of our story.

On the Japanese side, though, there was a rightful measure of fear and consternation. The ship was visibly heavily armed, and as noted, the forts guarded by Saga troops were severely understaffed. Interestingly, Takaboko-jima was the site of one of those forts. According to Noell Wilson, Takaboko had some artillery, seven pieces in total, the largest piece being a 12 pound cannon. Compare that to Phaeton’s “thirty-eight 18-pound cannon, eight 32-pound carronades, and two carronades of an unspecified caliber, so harbor officials were roughly accurate in counting fifty cannon on board.” City magistrate Matsudaira Yasuhide wrote to his superiors in Edo the following morning, and sounded the alarm for reinforcements from neighboring domains, who were, after all, responsible for the city’s defense.

Meanwhile, having understood that there was no Dutch shipping to be raided, Pellew wrote a letter, carried by Gozeman as messenger. This message indicated that since there were no Dutch ships, they’d depart, but would first need to resupply. Bear in mind, though, that the British and Japanese sides did not have a language in common, and so the message had to be translated through the Dutch East India Company people on Dejima first, who– according to some recent historians– quite likely mistranslated the message in order to make Pellew sound more threatening than he actually was. And given that there was no independent way for the city magistrate or any other Japanese official to cross-check, there was no choice but to follow the Dutch translation. There was indeed initial provision of supplies to the British crew, and consequently, at about 9 PM, Pellew released Gozeman and Schimmel.

Hendrik Doeff, Dutch official then in charge of Dejima. Image PD.

Despite this, into the night of the 5th, there was spirited discussion involving both Japanese and Dutch officials– Matsudaira Yasuhide, the city magistrate, even consulted Doeff about potentially blocking the passage out of Nagasaki Bay to prevent Phaeton’s escape. This spitballing of ideas to block Phaeton’s departure continued to the following morning. However, simultaneously, the magistrate wrote a friendly letter to Pellew, and dispatched it along with a 2nd round of resupply. There were reinforcements arriving from nearby domains– Omura Sumiyoshi of Omura domain arrived with troops on the morning of the 6th, as well. But it was soon a moot point: by noon, Pellew had Phaeton under sail and leaving the harbor.

This was the only direct intrusion of the Napoleonic Wars in Tokugawa Japan, but the fallout only began there.

Having slipped up in his duty of protecting Nagasaki Harbor, the city magistrate Matsudaira Yasuhide took his own life on the night of the 6th, his body discovered by a physician, a Dr. Tanabe, the following morning. In the note he left behind, the magistrate particularly castigated Saga domain for having abandoned its posts and thus its duty of protecting Nagasaki harbor. And indeed, the fallout from this incident impacted Saga domain and its priorities. First, it lost its incumbency of coast guard duty in the Nagasaki area. Second, the Saga daimyo, Nabeshima Narinao, was placed under house arrest for 100 days. The aftermath of his domain’s powerlessness had a formative influence on Narinao and the priorities of he and his heirs: Nabeshima Naomasa, the visionary Saga lord who as we’ve seen in preceding weeks invested so heavily in everything from military modernization to robotics to vaccination, was Narinao’s son. 

Nabeshima Naomasa, the visionary Saga daimyo influenced by events during his father’s reign. Image PD.

The Phaeton incident also kickstarted serious Japanese study of English. Realizing that it had no translators or interpreters with any appreciable level of the language, the Shogunate established the Office for Translation of Barbarian Books (Bansho Wage Goyō) and ordered the compilation of English dictionaries and the general improvement of its interpreters’ ability in English. Shogunate retainer and Dutch interpreter Motoki Shōzaemon– who we met briefly in the episode about Ranald MacDonald– compiled A Japanese Interpretation of the English Language (Anguria Kokugo Wage 諳厄利亜国語和解) in 1811, soon followed by A Collection of English Words (Anguria Gorin Taisei 諳厄利亜語林大成) in 1814. You can check out a fully digitized copy of Anguria Kokugo Wage here: http://base1.nijl.ac.jp/iview/Frame.jsp?DB_ID=G0003917KTM&C_CODE=0091-027402

It wouldn’t be until Ranald MacDonald’s visit in 1848 that English language instruction by a native speaker first came to Japan, but this was the beginning. Foreign language knowledge is well known as a strategic asset– and the language of a potentially hostile external power, all the more so. A common saying in Armenian is Քու թշնամիիդ լեզուն քու լեզուէդ աւելի լա՛ւ գիտցիր– Know your enemy’s language better than your own. So I think this bears some consideration in our understanding of Japan in the Edo period, that even if its interactions with the rest of the world were significantly curtailed by choice, it was not ignorant of other countries, their political developments, and their languages.

But in this case, it took having no language in common with a potentially hostile British vessel, before serious attention was paid to English as a language of interest for the Shogunate. So, to find out what happened in the wake of this policy change, we’ll pick up with Motoki’s creation of Anguria Kokugo Wage next week.

And what happened to Pellew? Well, he was knighted in 1836 and made an admiral in 1858, but as Timon Screech observes, he was one of few commanders to provoke no fewer than 3, count them, 3 mutinies– so, a lot of his later career was deskbound. Pellew died in 1861, when Dutch and some American instructors were helping Japanese instructors teach the first cadres of the Shogunate Navy officers at the Shogunate Naval Academy in Nagasaki Harbor.

It seems the Dutch had the last laugh.

I’m Nyri and this has been #FridayNightHistory

Now– questions?

Sources

(Friday Night History) “No Second Thoughts”

Japanese portrait of the vessel Morrison (PD)

There’s a lot that’s made of the isolationism of Edo period Japan, and all too often I worry that the common perception is something like a hermetically sealed country. The facts suggest that this was anything but the case. Rather than total exclusion, it was very tightly controlled interaction in some very specific places, and outside of those, a lot of accidental interaction with foreigners and foreign vessels that the Shogunate couldn’t legislate away even if it wanted to. There was just too much coastline, and not a big enough military or a quick enough form of communication, to effectively do so. All the same, there was a period of time in the 19th century where the Tokugawa Shogunate attempted to keep unauthorized foreign contact at bay by way of the Order to Fire and Disperse Barbarian Ships (Ikokusen Uchiharai-rei), also called the Fire and Disperse with no Second Thoughts Order (Muninen Uchiharai-rei). In the interest of keeping things tidy, I’ll be calling it the “No Second Thoughts Order.”

The frequency of foreign ships in Japanese waters only increased over time, particularly picking up steam following the growth in number of steam vessels active in East Asian waters. There were some pretty notable cases where foreigners in Japanese waters by chance even landed on Japanese shores– far outside Nagasaki– and while this had always been the case, it only became more frequent in the 19th century. In the Otsuhama Incident of 1824 for instance, the crew of a British vessel landed at Otsuhama, in Mito domain (modern Ibaraki Prefecture) and were intercepted by local authorities. After interception, the Mito authorities learned that the men’s object was securing fresh food to ward off scurvy among some ill shipmates, and while they allowed the men to acquire what they sought, the Mito officials also put to death the people who had traded with these Englishmen. Meanwhile, far to the south in Satsuma domain, the Takarajima Incident several months later was not nearly so peaceful. Foreign sailors believed to have been British landed on Takarajima, an island in the Nansei chain off of southern Kyushu, and communicated with the local Satsuma troops that they wanted to acquire cattle for shipboard provisions. This was rejected, and the foreigners withdrew, only to return later and forcibly seize cattle, which led to a firefight. These two incidents were major precursors to a push for new laws that took a harder stance against foreign incursion.

In the interest of continuing to keep foreigners at a distance and curtailing potential future incidents like this in the future, the Tokugawa Shogunate issued the No Second Thoughts order in 1825 (Bunsei 8). This stated that without allowing foreign vessels to dock or their crews to land, they were to be fired upon and driven off without a second thought. And for seventeen years, this remained the law of the land. Not only did it complicate any foreign attempts at negotiating trade or provisioning, but it also made returning Japanese castaways home significantly more difficult of a proposition.

A notable foreign vessel to stray into Japanese waters during those seventeen years was the American merchant vessel Morrison, whose mission can give us a sense of what the receiving end of the No Second Thoughts order looked like in practice. Regardless of the No Second Thoughts Order, a group of Americans in the foreign community at Canton (modern Guangdong) organized to deliver a group of seven shipwrecked Japanese sailors back to home shores, and to use that as a suitable leverage point from which to attempt negotiations for foreign trade. Three of those men had been shipwrecked on what’s now the US west coast and made their way to China via London; the other three had been shipwrecked on Luzon and headed to China from there. Present on this cruise was a missionary and linguist named Samuel Wells Williams, who ran the Guangdong press of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions.

The Morrison proceeded first to Uraga, at the mouth of Edo Bay, but had scarcely been there for a day before coast defense artillery, presumably under the command of the Tokugawa Shogunate’s Uraga Magistrate office, fired warning shots at the vessel and forced its crew to return to the open ocean. Sailing south, the ship headed for Kyushu, where on the 10th it arrived at Kagoshima, in the Satsuma domain. Satsuma officials did take two of the former castaways into custody, but again, scarcely a day had gone by before coast artillery, moved into range on the night of the first day, opened fire on the second. As recounted in the 1838 narrative of the voyage:

About seven o clock on Saturday morning we observed the people on shore much excited running here and there and mustering in little groups on the eminences near the beach. Soon after we saw several strips of cloth blue and white in bars stretched from tree to tree among the stones of a grave yard. Behind the cloth were many persons assembled having flags and guns and officers on horseback were seen hastening to and fro all betokening some hostile operations. As soon as our Japanese saw the canvas bearing the arms of the prince of Satzuma they said that a messenger had probably come from the capital and that his orders were to drive us away. Our suspicions of an intended attack were strong and we accordingly began to heave in the cable and hoist the yards to the tops in such a manner as not to excite the notice of those on shore and showed the American colours. Before we made any sail the party behind the canvas battery began to fire at us with musquetry the shot falling about half way to the ship. Although there was no wind and a strong flood tide setting in we concluded it best to weigh anchor and get beyond their reach before any cannon should be brought to bear on us. In doing so we narrowly escaped getting foul of a rock towards which the tide was drifting us and were carried five or six miles farther up the bay than we had before ventured. As we came out which was very slowly and against a head wind cannon were fired at us from the opposite side but in this spacious and deep bay we had plenty of sea room in tacking to avoid the shot from both sides. The firing was continued even from the musquetry until dark and after we had passed out of the bay.

“Narrative of a Voyage of the ship Morrison, Captain David Ingersoll, to Lewchew and Japan, in July and August, 1837,” from The Calcutta Christian Observer

Its crew unwilling to risk further danger, the Morrison sailed back to Guangdong, taking with it the remaining five Japanese castaways still aboard. One of them was the now famous Yamamoto Otokichi.

Samuel Wells Williams in later life. (PD)

For the moment, it was dangerous for any westerner but the Dutch to visit Japan and attempt diplomacy by coercion or negotiation, regardless of the circumstances, to say nothing of the likely fate of those who were shipwrecked on Japanese shores. This did not forever remain the case, though. After the Qing Dynasty’s defeat in the First Opium War (1839-1842) and the geopolitical shift in the region, the threat of potential European invasion increased significantly in East Asian waters. In the interest of wanting to avoid antagonizing foreign powers and risking a potential invasion, the Shogunate– during the leadership of reform-minded Senior Councilor Abe Masahiro (1819-1857)– repealed the No Second Thoughts order in 1842. It was replaced with the Order for Provision of Firewood and Water (Shinsui Kyuuyo-rei) the same year, which stated that should a foreign vessel visit Japanese shores, its crew was not to be allowed to land, but was to be provided with firewood, water, and other provisions as needed before being sent away. This remained Shogunate policy through the foreign incursions and attempts at negotiation I’ve written about in prior weeks: the Biddle mission of 1846 to Uraga, the Glynn mission of 1849 to Nagasaki, up to the Perry mission of 1853, which forced Japan to open itself to international trade and rendered the closed country system a moot point altogether. 

And it bears noting that aboard Perry’s flagship, serving as an interpreter, was Samuel Wells Williams, veteran of the Morrison mission.

I’m Nyri and this has been #FridayNightHistory.

Now– questions?

Sources

(Friday Night History) Katakura Kita: Builder

A saihai, a historic Japanese command baton.

This and more is made possible by readers like you. Support my work via Patreon at bit.ly/2lVqvv2, send a 1-time donation here: bit.ly/2lQfdZ8 , or buy my new novel #GreyDawn via bit.ly/greydawnebook! Thank you!

This is a topic I’ve written about in a prior Friday Night History– from December 2019– but my skill with this, as well as the characteristics of this feature itself, have changed. So I figured, why not try my hand at a rewrite? Hopefully, this will lend itself well, both to conforming to my current standard as well as to being the raw material for a later podcast episode.

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If the history you write isn’t inclusive of women and their role and agency in society, it is incomplete. So-called Great Men, and men in general, are not the only driving forces in the myriad events of the past. The common picture of ruling clans in Warring States Japan all too easily falls into the same old Great Man tropes. But if we make a point of including and centering the women of these clans in our appreciation of how that wild and often unpredictable era played out, our picture of them will only be better rounded and more complete. Women are often erased, but are not invisible. With this in mind, let’s talk about Katakura Kita. If we’re to understand the house of Date in the 16th and 17th centuries and appreciate why it was able to survive an era where many of its peers did not, she is one of the women that we have to include in our consideration. This isn’t the “Date Masamune springs fully formed from the peak of Mount Yudono” show.

Born in 1538, Kita was a child of the vassal band serving the house of Date, which was then headquartered at Yonezawa Castle in Dewa Province– modern day Yonezawa, Yamagata Prefecture. Her father, Oniniwa Yoshinao (1513-1586, also known as Oniniwa Sagetsusai), was a noted Date military commander, and when Kita was very young, he divorced his wife Motozawa Nao. Nao went on to remarry Katakura Kageshige, a Shinto priest turned warrior. Because she followed her mother after the divorce, Kita is surnamed Katakura. Katakura Kagetsuna (1557-1615, also known as Katakura Kojuro), Kita’s half-brother 19 years her junior, was born in 1557. As with many elder siblings throughout Japanese history, Kita shared in the responsibility of childcare and early education for Kagetsuna.

Now, remember: Warring States era is not a name that’s applied for nothing. In those days, it was very common to know how to use a weapon, because the time could very well come where one would be expected to use it. You do need all hands on deck when the country’s been fighting itself since the 1470s. And as the daughter of two very prominent and somewhat wealthy warrior vassal families in the Date clan service, Kita knew how to fight. She could throw a punch, she could swing a sword, she could shoulder a halberd, as I recall, she knew how to handle a musket, and given what comes up later in our story, we can reasonably assume she was also familiar with military engineering. Yet even in times of civil war, as the daughter of a high ranking vassal family, one doesn’t just learn to fight. So, Kita was also educated broadly in the arts, was an accomplished poet, and read the Chinese and Japanese classics. Kita brought all of this to bear in helping with her half-brother’s upbringing. 

In several installments of Friday Night History I’ve talked about Date Masamune’s succession to Date headship in the late 16th century, as well as the politics motivating his mother Mogami Yoshi’s desire to exert control over the succession arrangement in the family to benefit her birth family, which was another powerful clan in Dewa. Lady Yoshi’s political motivations were known to her husband, Date Terumune, from the beginning. So, in the interest of guiding the young Masamune’s early education, and also protecting him, Terumune had to choose an appropriate woman as a surrogate mother. Terumune chose Kita. With a measure of sass and a keen ear for the clan’s politics, and she was educated enough, experienced enough, dangerous enough, and unorthodox enough that she got Terumune’s attention. Some sources claim that she wasn’t actually Masamune’s wetnurse, because she was unmarried and had not been pregnant, but lactation can be induced in people who aren’t pregnant, so I don’t know if this is necessarily the case. But whatever the case, Kita was attendant, teacher, guardian to the young Bontenmaru, who would grow up to become Masamune. She was the first to teach him how to read and write, though her role was later supplanted by the abbot Kosai Soitsu, who was invited to the north by Terumune to further instruct his son. But Kita also taught Masamune how to fight. In 1575, her half-brother Kagetsuna became Masamune’s page– and because she had a hand in Kagetsuna’s education, I see this as further reinforcing Kita’s influence on Masamune’s education and early development.

While Kita’s role in the Date clan’s daily life changed as Masamune grew older, she remained a powerful presence in guiding and shaping its affairs. The 1590s saw her in Kyoto as an attendant to Tamura Mego, Masamune’s wife, after Toyotomi Hideyoshi– then the de facto ruler of Japan– summoned all daimyo to send their families to reside as hostages in his court at Jurakudai. While she was in Kyoto, Kita was often in the presence of Hideyoshi. It bears noting that Masamune had a bad habit of pissing Hideyoshi off. When they met, Masamune had deliberately dragged his feet on responding to Hideyoshi’s summons and request for Masamune to pledge fealty. Later, Masamune was accused of treason– a charge that may have actually been true– and only his smooth talking in the heat of the moment saved him. But the thing is, Hideyoshi got a kick out of Kita! He thought she was funny and clever as hell, and he even called her Shonagon as a mark of his praise. Shonagon– which some of you might recognize as part of the courtly nickname of the 11th century diarist Sei Shonagon, was the title of a high counselor to the Emperor– it’d be like being called Chief of Staff or Aide de Camp or something of that sort. In the end, it was because of Kita’s regular politicking that the Date clan was saved from Hideyoshi’s wrath– in Masamune’s absence, she took action many times to keep Hideyoshi happy and keep his attention away from potentially destroying, impoverishing, or reassigning the family. When Masamune finally got wind of how without consultation she was regularly making decisions he considered rightfully his, he wasn’t happy. But I think it a sign of her influence and their shared history that rather than executing her, he had her simply sent back north to live in semi-retirement in her brother Kagetsuna’s castle. By that point, having risen in the Date vassal ranks, he was warden of Sanuma Castle. When he received ownership of Shiroishi Castle (in modern day Shiroishi, Miyagi Prefecture) in 1602, he brought Kita along. Shiroishi, formerly known as Masuoka Castle, had been a possession of the nearby rival Uesugi clan. Date forces took it at gunpoint during the climactic Sekigahara Campaign of 1600. This is where Kita’s background in military engineering is particularly visible. She took a walk around the castle’s outer works with her brother, and pointed out the gaps in its defensive architecture, urging her brother to close the gaps if he wanted to be serious about the castle as a viable piece of military architecture rather than a decoration. This was the castle at which the delegates of northern Honshu clans convened to form and lead the Northern Alliance during the Boshin War of 1868-1869. Partially dismantled in the years after the Boshin War, Shiroishi Castle, which I saw in 2005, is now partially reconstructed, along the lines of Kita’s suggestions to Kagetsuna.

Also remaining and locally ubiquitous today is Shiroishi City’s emblem– a black castle bell– which she first suggested that her brother use as his battle flag. Kagetsuna’s descendants used it until the house of Date’s surrender in late 1868. Here it is as I saw it at Shiroishi Castle in 2005.

Kita died in 1610, at the age of 72. In a rather uncommon act for the time, Date Tadamune– Masamune’s son and heir– ordered that Kita’s lineage (as opposed to a male lineage) be continued by two of his cousins. One of them, Katakura Yoshitane, was the originator of the Aoba tradition of matagi, a style of hunting still found some places in northern Japan. Katakura Kunio, former Japanese ambassador to Iraq, is his descendant– and thus, Kita’s.

The moral of the story is this: for every outstanding Japanese warlord still revered today, there’s at least one woman like Kita who made his success possible, and likely many more. You just have to dig a little deeper to find their stories. And if you’re going to tell a well-rounded story about the past, it behooves you, and me, and everyone else, to do so.

I’m Nyri and this has been #FridayNightHistory.

Now– questions?

Sources

  • Date Chike Kiroku Vol. 2, ed. Taira Shigemichi (Sendai: Hōbundō, 1974), pp. 434-438.
  • Kazama Kansei, “Shiroishi-jō,” pp. 125-138 of Sendaijō to Sendairyō no Shiro, Yōgai (Tokyo: Meichō Shuppan, 1982), pp. 126-127.
  • “Kessanji no Kaiki: Katakura Kojuro Kagetsuna-ko.” https://kessanji.jp/history/katakura Accessed 14 January 2021.
  • Kobayashi Seiji. Date Masamune (Tokyo: Yoshikawa Kōbunkan, 1966), pp. 108-110. 
  • “Moniwa-shi.” Harimaya.com. http://www2.harimaya.com/sengoku//html/moniwa.html Accessed 14 January 2021
  • Otokozawa Chisato, Itō Sukemasa, Yano Michisato, & Imamura Moriyuki, “Boshin Shimatsu,” pp. 41-325 of Sendai Sōsho Vol 12. (Sendai: Hōbundō, 1974), pp. 161-162.
  • “Shishou, shinboru.” Shiroishi City. https://www.city.shiroishi.miyagi.jp/soshiki/1/261.html Accessed 14 January 2021.

(Friday Night History) The Doctor and the Daimyo

(pictured: Nabeshima Naomasa in formal garb)

This episode of Friday Night History first ran on 9 December 2020. This and more is made possible by readers like you. Support my work via Patreon at bit.ly/2lVqvv2, send a 1-time donation here: bit.ly/2lQfdZ8 , or buy my new novel #GreyDawn via bit.ly/greydawnebook! Thank you!

First things first this week, kids: don’t mess with mercury, regardless of what a Civil War doctor or Daoist sage tells you. Just don’t. It’ll be a bad time.

We cool? Cool.

Alright, so. Dr. Samuel Pellman Boyer (1839-1875) was a physician in US Navy service in the 1860s. After a tour in the blockade of southern ports during the American Civil War, he aws assigned to the USS Iroquois, part of the navy’s Asiatic Squadron, based in and around East Asian waters. The timing of his appointment would bring him from the aftermath of one civil war and into the throes of another. His diary, “Diary of a Naval Surgeon: Revolt in Japan,” is one of the primary American first-person accounts of the Boshin War of 1868-1869.

Pictured: USS Iroquois at anchor.

Nabeshima Naomasa (1815-1871) was daimyo of Saga domain from 1830 to 1861. By 1868 he was in retirement but continued to exert a major influence on his domain’s affairs. Saga under his leadership had made huge strides in technological development as well as military reform. As I’ve often said here and elsewhere, you can’t fight a 19th century war with 16th century technology and command structure and expect to win. Interest in technological and military reforms was not unique in this period in the Shogunate or in any of the domains, but Saga benefited from a geographic placement no other major domain enjoyed: its territory was immediately next to Nagasaki, the one port through which legal foreign trade and interaction took place in the Edo period. Officially this was under the watchful eye of the Tokugawa Shogunate, but unofficially, the Shogunate was unable to exert much meaningful direct control– if the clans around Nagasaki adhered to Shogunate policy, it was more under the theoretical force of potential Shogunate reprisal (as in the case of the Shimabara Uprising of 1638) rather than actual overwhelming Shogunate force in the area. This left the clans of western Japan in general, and Saga in particular, in a position where they had easier acess to foreign technology and foreign experts than others in Japan who had similar aims, like the house of Date, which ruled Sendai domain in northern Honshu.

Despite Nabeshima Naomasa’s insistence on technological advances and broad reforms and modernization, he kept the domain out of entanglement in any of the political factions that dominated Japanese politics in the 1860s. This continued into the start of the Boshin War, and threatened Saga’s security– indeed, there were some in nearby Satsuma domain, one of the leaders of the new imperial army, who called for attacking Saga due to its apparent fence-sitting. Western observers referred to Naomasa himself as “Mister Facing-Both-Ways.” But the clan leadership, including the retired Naomasa and his son Naohiro, soon threw in with the new imperial faction and put its advanced military technology to work in the service of that army. By the time Dr. Boyer entered the picture, Saga– also known by the name of the old province in which it sat, Hizen– had made itself one of the central pillars of the new imperial forces. And while many other daimyo had abandoned their estates in Kyoto or had them confiscated for supposed disloyalty, the Saga estate was a focal point of lively activity for Saga men and others. And this was where Nabeshima Naomasa was, on 29 July 1868, when Samuel Pellman Boyer met him. As was customary among Americans referring to daimyo at the time, he calls Naomasa “the Prince.” 

Naomasa was no stranger to western medicine. Earlier in life, he had a role in the popularization and implementation of smallpox vaccination in late Edo Japan. Western medicine was, for a time in the 1840s, declared illegal in Shogunate territories. However, after vaccinating himself and his son at home in Saga, Naomasa took the vaccine with him on his journey to the shogun’s capital of Edo, where he had his daughter vaccinated as well, and through contacts with other domains, spread the word and helped other people from other domains get vaccinated– Sendai domain being one of the first to follow Saga’s lead. As a result, Naomasa ensured his domain was a leader in medical advances, so by 1868, he would certainly have been no stranger to western doctors and medical technology.

Joseph Heco, a Japanese interpreter and noted former castaway, brought a Saga domain official nnamed Motoyama to the US consulate at Osaka on 26 July, where Motoyama requested the aid of an American doctor in treating Naomasa. “General debility” is what Boyer’s diary records as the symptoms this official relayed. Once Boyer rounded up medical supplies, he, Heco, Motoyama, the American consul T. Scott Stewart, and a few Japanese officers, took a boat up to Kyoto, where they arrived at the Saga estate at Kyoto’s Fushimi district on the 29th at 11 AM, having passed the ruins of the Battle of Toba-Fushimi that had yet to be cleared. Upon arrival in Fushimi, Boyer and Stewart were the first Americans to enter Kyoto. They were at last summoned to Naomasa’s bedchamber at 5 PM that day and found him in bed, with a very low pulse, as well as fatigued and complaining of pains throughout his body. To quote Boyer:

“Upon examination, I found that the Prince had been maltreated. It appears that six weeks ago he was attacked with an attack of dysenteria accuta acompanied with typhoid symptoms, for which his doctor had given him large doses of mercury to such an extent as to salivate him almost to death…”

So here’s where we have to talk about mercury.

Mercury is a substance that has a long history in traditional East Asian medicine, but was also quite common in western medicine of the time as well. Calomel in particular, a mercury chloride mineral, was used medicinally in the American Civil War, though because of its negative side-effects its military use was soon restricted. So we can assume Boyer would’ve been familiar with mercury-based medication and its effects, even before he came to East Asian waters. Ironically, the medical supplies Boyer took with him to Kyoto included “blue pills,” which was one common form of calomel, the common name of mercury chloride.

Boyer diagnosed Naomasa with adynamia, or general debility, and perscribed as initial treatment “ipecacuanhae pulv comp grs iii”– three powdered grams of ipecac, a pretty powerful emetic.

The next day, some Saga officials called on Boyer in the latter’s quarters in the Saga estate and reported that Naomasa had slept well all night after his treatment. In his diary entry for the day, Boyer said

“I felt better, for to confess the truth I thought last night that he might peg out during the night, for a man with a pulse of 38 is not a very strong one.”

There were a range of medications that Boyer administered to Naomasa, but the result was that by the last time Boyer saw him on 31 July, Naomasa was markedly improved.

“Called upon him at 1 P.M. and gave his doctor final directions and then bade the Prince adieu and told him to come to Osaka as soon as his health would permit him to travel. 4 P.M. our party left homeward bound.”

In his own account of the visit, Heco notes “After breakfast we visited the Prince again and found that the medicine had had powerful effect upon him. As he felt much better, we stayed with him much longer than on the two previous occasions. He asked me many questions about foreign matters, and requested me to inform Mr. Katayama, his confidential attendant, of anything that might suggest itself to my mind as beneficial to his country.”

Nabeshima Naomasa went on to occupy several important posts in the early Meiji government, including as director of colonization for the newly annexed Hokkaido. He died in 1871 at the age of 56, and since 1933 is enshrined as a kami at Saga Shrine, in his old castle town. Samuel Pellman Boyer finished his tour of duty, went home, and died in 1875 at 36, relatively young even for the time.

But there’s an interesting postscript to this story.

In his account of the visit to treat Nabeshima Naomasa, Joseph Heco noted that on the last day in Fushimi, Boyer and the others were visited by 

“Mr. Yokoi Heshiro (afterwards Minister of State and assassinated by a band of Ronin in 1868), who came to consult the doctor and get medicine.”

Yokoi Heishirō, better known as Yokoi Shōnan, was a vassal of Kumamoto domain, one of Saga’s powerful neighbors in Kyushu. A year later, his nephew, Yokoi Daihei, became one of the first two Japanese students at the United States Naval Academy, at Annapolis, Maryland.

All of this just goes to show: history is more interconnected than we might assume. And it sometimes moves faster than we realize.

But seriously kids: don’t ingest mercury.

I’m Nyri and this has been #FridayNightHistory

Now, questions?

Sources

  • Boyer, Samuel Pellman. Naval Surgeon: Revolt in Japan, 1868-1869. James A. Barnes and Elinor Barnes, eds. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1963), pp. 78-88.
  • “Col. Thomas Scott Stewart.” Find a Grave. https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/136388705/thomas-scott-stewart Accessed 9 December 2020.
  • Heco, Joseph. The narrative of a Japanese: what he has seen and the people he has met in the course of the last forty years, Vol. 2. James Murdoch, ed. (Tokyo: Maruzen, 1895), pp. 118-129. https://www.loc.gov/item/52053301/ Accessed 6 December 2020.
  • Jannetta, Ann Bowman. The Vaccinators: Smallpox, Medical Knowledge, and the ‘Opening’ of Japan. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2007).
  • “Katsuyaku shita Hitobito.” https://www.city.saga.lg.jp/main/3857.html Accessed 6 December 2020.
  • Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States. Register of the commandery of the state of Pennsylvania, April 15, 1865-September 1, 1902 Brevet Lieut.-Colonel John P. Nicholson, Recorder-Compiler. (Philadelphia: Press of J.T. Palmer, 1902), p. 59. https://archive.org/details/registerofcomman18mili Accessed 6 December 2020.
  • Nabeshima, Naomasa. https://www.ndl.go.jp/portrait/e/datas/154.html Accessed 7 December 2020.
  • Onodera Eikō, “Boshin Nanboku Senso to Tohoku Seiken.” (Sendai: Kita no Mori, 2005).
  • “Saga-han no Torikumi.” https://www.city.saga.lg.jp/main/3856.html Accessed 6 December 2020.
  • “Sagara Chian.” http://www.sagarachian.jp/main/74.html Accessed 6 December 2020.
  • Swiderski, Richard M. Calomel in America: Mercurial Panacea, War, Song and Ghosts. (Boca Raton: BrownWalker Press, 2008), pp. 19-20, 186.