(Friday Night History) Falconry

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Hawk on Ceremonial Stand, by Katsushika Hokusai. (Image in PD)

Falconry– that is, using trained birds of prey in hunting– has, for a very long time, been a mark of upperclass culture in Japan. The term for this in Japanese is takagari. In the interest of brevity and keeping things as consistent as I can, I’m going to refer to this practice as “falconry” throughout this episode. But regardless of the specific type of bird in question, I’m still talking about takagari.

In terms of the origins of this system, its oldest forms entered Japan via Korea, as did much else in the orbit of the early Yamato court. Much later, starting in the late Heian era, the ascendant warrior caste adopted many of the trappings of court life and culture, falconry among them. And in time, some warrior clans, and the regions they inhabited, came to be known for particularly prized hunting birds. You guessed it– house Date of Sendai had that distinction. No less than all 3 Great Unifiers– Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and Tokugawa Ieyasu even wrote to request hunting birds from this distant clan that was otherwise not particularly politically concerning to them for quite a while. Other clans are also on record as having gifted hunting birds to the Date family– for example, Date Chike Kiroku, the orthodox history of the Date clan, notes that Mogami Yoshiaki, Date Masamune’s maternal uncle, sent a letter to his nephew on 17 September 1586 together with a falcon. At another occasion on 3 November 1588, Date Chike Kiroku notes that

“Three hawks (otaka 雄鷹) arrived from Moniwa, in Natori County. On the same day, Fukuhara Kura presented three skylarks caught by his hawk, to his lordship.”

According to our old standby, folklorist Mihara Ryokichi, there was a falconry center at Kome-ga-fukuro in the Sendai castle town, with a second one– added in the late Edo period– eventually set up in nearby Tsuchitoi. Mihara notes that the birds were treated better than some Date vassals– each one got its own room, and attendants caught the smaller birds that these birds of prey ate. The attendants who caught these small birds for food were called esashi. There were 102 esashi, who followed the Date lord on hunting trips in order to care for these hunting birds. Mihara notes that the esashi were recognizable by their clothing– dark blue cotton happi with a sun disk on the back– and a type of sedge hat called a manju-gasa (pictured, top left).

(Photo by Steven L. Johnson. [CC-2.0 License])

The esashi were organized into 3 units of 34 people each, with one unit commander (yogashira 与頭) and two squad commanders (tokogashira 床頭), under the command of a mid-ranking Date vassal of chakuza 着座 or meshidashi 召出しrank. A different set of personnel, dedicated falconers, who were of slightly higher kumishi rank, trained the falcons. In wartime, the falconers would be elite gunners, while the esashi were spearmen. Despite their critical service in supporting the clan’s falconing needs, the esashi were poor– got paid half a gold ryō a year, though some of them received further allotments of maybe 3 koku a year. I’ve mentioned in the past that low ranking members of the warrior caste were no strangers to the gig economy, and the esashi were no exception– their main side-job for extra income was making paper cords for tying topknots.

So. House Date took its falconry seriously.

But how does falconry work, you might ask? Well, a bird of prey– often a northern goshawk, in Japanese falconry– is trained to hunt smaller prey by being rewarded with food. And if a warrior had the financial wherewithal to be able to afford a hunting bird, they weren’t going to go out and do it alone.

(I mean really. Who do you take them for?)

No, they’re going to do it in style, as with everything else that’s supposed to showcase both their status as well as ensure their security in that status. So, say, a daimyo was on the hunt with a particularly favored hunting bird would also have personal attendants, bodyguards, porters, esashi, and so on– it wasn’t a solo affair at all.

Stick a pin in that one if you would, friends– it’s going to matter in a moment.

When Tokugawa Ieyasu received the title of Shogun from Emperor Goyozei in 1603, he began the process of setting up a legal code that would regulate the affairs of the warrior caste in order to better ensure that the peace bought by his alliances and force of arms would be a lasting one. These laws didn’t just govern military affairs, and they weren’t just a one-off matter either. They were issued in successive waves or editions, and dealt with everything from castle construction to court title usage to the affairs of temples and shrines. Among the many matters they curtailed was the raising and movement of armies and the limits of who was allowed to pursue falconry, and in what manner.

On the level of individual fiefdoms as well as the Shogunate, falconry fields were set up and rangers appointed to manage the game and plant life within. This wasn’t limited to falconry, either– some longtime followers of this podcast from back when it was just a Twitter thread may recall when I talked about the cricket ranges in service to house Date.

But by Shogunate law, there were also limitations on what game was allowed to a daimyo of a given court rank. Date Masamune, despite his efforts at quietly accruing local and international support to conquer Japan, held high court rank, and managed to ingratiate himself with house Tokugawa in part through a shared interest in falconry. Ieyasu himself granted several falconry preserves to house Date as a result, and many were the occasions where Masamune went hunting with Ieyasu. Sometimes, Masamune would also rest on his way to or from Edo in lodgings at one of these falconry preserves, and he didn’t always use a bird to do his hunting– at least one occasion noted in the Date Chike Kiroku and the Date Butoku Ibunroku notes he hunted with a matchlock gun.

But I can hear you saying, “Hey Doc, what was that about entourages and movement of armies?”

Hang on. Wait for it. We’re getting to it, friends, we’re getting to it.

Okay. So.

Large movements of fighting forces were curtailed by Shogunate law, in the interest of keeping the peace. The common expression at the time was that the Shogunate officials at the checkpoints going into Edo were to watch for “guns going in and women going out.” Now sure, a lord’s entourage to and from the capital was also armed, but it was there more for show of status than actual application as a large, organized fighting force. But the Shogunate still expected the daimyo to be able to field a fighting force on the Shogunate’s behalf if called upon. So, bearing in mind the point I often bring up– the one argued by Luke Roberts in Performing the Great Peace– the appearance of following the rules was more important than actually following the rules. Daimyo consequently had to find ways of skirting the rules to make up for that disconnect.

In house Date, one of the ways that that was made up for was by using falconry as a cover for field exercises. There were a number of places where this was done, one of them being Matsumori Castle, just north of the Sendai Castle town and located astride the Oshu Highway just north of the Nanakita River. Matsumori Castle was a small fortification once controlled by the Kokubun family, which had over time become mediated (that is, absorbed into) the Date clan, and by the late 16th century was ruled by Masamune’s uncle, Kokubun Morishige. Date forces would go there more than once a year, but the first time in a given year was in every New Year’s holiday, on the third day of the first month, for what was called Nohajime (野始め “first field”)․ As noted above, the daimyo didn’t travel alone on hunting trips, so it was only proper for the daimyo’s entourage to accompany him or his duly appointed substitute on this excursion. Ostensibly a hunting trip, it was in actuality a chance for the clan’s fighting forces to get practice maneuvering, scouting, and shooting. Date was not even the only clan to do this– house Matsudaira of nearby Aizu domain is another major example of a clan that had a similar practice.

Until the late Edo period, when there were less and less restrictions the fiefdoms actually paid attention to, it did the trick.

Today, large troop movements in Japan aren’t disguised as hunting trips, but are no less rare. And while the warrior caste no longer exists, a dedicated community of trained and licensed experts keeps the art of falconry alive. You can visit the homepage of the Nihon Houyou Kyoukai at site.falconry.jp


  • Date Butoku Ibunroku, p. 26.
  • Date Chike Kiroku 1, p. 247, 313, 460
  • ”Kokubun-shi.” http://www2.harimaya.com/sengoku/html/kokub_k.html Accessed 20 May 2021.
  • Mihara Ryōkichi. Kyodoshi Sendai Mimibukuro. (Sendai: Hobundo, Showa 58 [1983]), pp. 59-62.
  • Nihon Houyou Kyoukai. site.falconry.jp Accessed 20 May 2021.
  • Noriko Otsuka. “Falconry: Tradition and Acculturation.” International Journal of Sport and Health Science 2006 Volume 4 Issue Special Issue 2006. Pages 198-207.

(Friday Night History) Feudal Edge Case

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Shiroishi Castle, home of the Katakura family– who had many of the trappings of daimyo but were not daimyo. (Image PD)

Here’s the thing.

The definition of a daimyo in the Edo period gets weird around the edges. There are some broad definitions applied to daimyo, but they aren’t nearly as clear-cut as one might assume. So, let’s start with more or less the standard definition.

Per Kotobank, an online encyclopedia and dictionary, a daimyo is a person who is recognized as an independent feudal lord by the Tokugawa Shogun– along the way, usually receiving a kanji from the ruling Shogun’s name to mark the affirmation or reaffirmation of that status– and held over 10,000 koku (bales of rice) in income, usually in the form of a landholding. One might say, “but hey now, Doc, what about a castle?” but this isn’t required to be a daimyo– there were lots and lots of daimyo who neatly fall within the traditional definition of the term who didn’t have one, so this isn’t an integral part of that definition.

Anyway, so in short, that’s (1) Shogunal recognition as a daimyo, and (2) at least 10,000 koku of income. You with me so far?

Good, ’cause from here on out it gets weird. The sheer number of exceptions and edge cases render the standard definition kind of laughably flimsy and hollow.

First, we have the people who held over 10,000 koku, even way over 10,000 koku, but were not daimyo. The most notable case of these is the Tayasu, Shimizu, and Hitotsubashi lords, the 3 Tokugawa cadet branch lords who were collectively called the Gosankyo, the 3 Lords. They resided in the Shogun’s castle, held great prestige, held over 100,000 koku of income in the form of direct emolument, but weren’t daimyo! Their lineages existed solely to provide backup heirs should the main Shogunal lineage die out. This happened at the very tail end of the Edo period, when Hitotsubashi Yoshinobu became Tokugawa Yoshinobu, the 15th and last shogun, in 1866.

Secondly there were the people who held over 10,000 koku but were not daimyo. Bigger domains ruled by older daimyo families like the Date in the north or the Shimazu in the far south had many cases of this, often but not always in the form of cadet branches. The Katakura family’s a good case in point. With a holding of 18,000 koku, the family was a Date vassal clan and held Shiroishi Castle in the domain’s south as its residence. It nearly became an independent daimyo family in the 1590s, due to the invitations of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, but his offer of recognition was refused by Katakura Kagetsuna (Kojuro I), who chose to continue service to the house of Date. I suspect if he hadn’t, his sister Kita– who had been wetnurse and first tutor in martial arts to both Kagetsuna and his overlord Date Masamune– would never have let him hear the end of it. And while Kagetsuna and several others like him in Date service held daimyo-level income and many of the trappings of a daimyo, they were not daimyo themselves.

Third, daimyo who didn’t actually have the traditional daimyo level income. A noteworthy case of this is the Ashikaga family of Kitsuregawa domain. This was a branch of the same family that was once the 2nd shogunal dynasty back during the Muromachi era. Because of this exalted lineage, the Tokugawa shogunate gave it the status of a 100,00 koku domain, despite the fact that its landholdings, centered on Kitsuregawa in modern-day Sakura, Tochigi Prefecture, never amounted to more than 5,000 koku. It was excused from alternate-attendance duty, the duty by which the Shogunate kept the daimyo and high-ranking bannermen (hatamoto) in Edo some of the year. But perhaps out of pride and wanting to keep up appearances with its peers, the Kitsuregawa family performed alternate attendance in Edo anyway.

Which brings me to an even stranger case, that of daimyo who were simultaneously recognized as daimyo but were also vassals of other daimyo. Tamura of Ichinoseki domain, in modern Iwate Prefecture, is a case of this. Holding a modest but respectable 30,000 koku, the house Tamura was a cadet branch of the house of Date. It performed alternate-attendance in Edo and was recognized as an independent daimyo by the shogun. However, it was also a Date cadet branch and vassal family and held status within Sendai domain!

To sidebar, for a moment: Sendai domain was unique in that it had a microcosm of the Shogunate-domain (bakuhan taisei) system in place. Sendai domain was very large, and unwieldy to manage from one or two castles, as most other domains were managed in the Edo period. Thus, Date vassals held landholdings throughout the domain and performed alternate attendance on the lord in Sendai just as the lord performed alternate-attendance on the shogun, his overlord, in Edo. This was a system the Date had used for centuries, dating back to before the Edo period’s onset in the 17th century. Senior vassals held castles– called fortresses (yogai) to stay within the letter of the Shogunate law on castles– but many Date vassals, great and small, held landholdings throughout the domain where they lived at least part of the time. And Tamura of Ichinoseki performed alternate-attendance– or at any rate, maintained offices– in both Edo and Sendai.

There were also situations where the definition involved some measure of overt or tacit hostility. Some people who are considered daimyo in the Edo period used to be vassals of daimyo who did an end run around their overlords, got confirmed as daimyo by the shogun, but not officially recognized as such by their now ex-overlords. The most notable case of this is the house of Tsugaru, in the far north of Honshu, who had once been vassals of the Nanbu clan of Morioka domain, but became independent when they reached Hideyoshi and pledged fealty to him ahead of the Nanbu daimyo. The two clans were at odds for the rest of the Edo period, with multiple assassinations and other clashes marking their shared history, once even nearly coming to open war and requiring Shogunate arbitration during what’s called the Cypress Tree Incident (Hinokiyama-sodo). To this day, local wisdom has it that people from the old Tsugaru land (Aomori) and people from the old Nanbu land (Morioka) don’t get along. There is also rather famously the case of the Inada family, which ruled Awaji island and had been on track to become an independent daimyo when the Edo period began, and had to remain in what had been a temporary assignment as reinforcement to the Hachisuka clan of Tokushima domain. Promised independence in exchange for imperial service in the Boshin War of 1868-1869, the Inada clan made a bid for independence, but that bid was met by a crackdown and attack on its castle town, in what’s called the Kogo Incident. Inada Kunitane and his retainers got to very briefly set up as their own independent domain, but far north in the newly named and officially annexed Hokkaido– events that were dramatized in the 2005 film Kita no Zeronen.

Finally, there were people who held daimyo level income and status, but were heading a branch of a much larger domain on whose administration, facilities, and personnel they relied, to the extent that they weren’t meaningfully independent. Any domain you might encounter whose name ends in “Shinden” is a case of this– a domain whose tax base was made by clearing out new field (shinden) to make that magic minimum of 10,000 koku.

There are many more cases in point, here, and any serious consideration of history has to be more than just the disconnected reciting of anecdotes. I’d be going on for multiple episodes if I did that, and we need to keep the show going. Suffice it to say, there are many, many edge cases that make a clear-cut definition to “daimyo” in the Edo period ring a little hollow– and I think it’s a good lesson in questioning the limits and rigidity of terms that, in history, we tend to take for granted.

So, what makes a daimyo?

Eh. It depends!


  • “Daimyo.” https://kotobank.jp/word/%E5%A4%A7%E5%90%8D-92048 Accessed 13 May 2021
  • 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.
  • Kudō Mutsuo. Mura no Dekigoto- Tōhoku: Hankyō wo Meguru Tsugaru, Nanbu Sanron, pp. 166-167.
  • Sendaijō to Sendairyō no Shiro, Yōgai, ed. Kobayashi Seiji (Tokyo: Meichō Shuppan, 1982)
  • “Sumoto Castle 洲本城” Japan National Tourism Organization https://www.japan.travel/en/spot/1047/ Accessed 13 May 2021
  • Conrad Totman. Politics in the Tokugawa Bakufu, 1600-1843. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1967), pp. 110-115, 126-130.
  • Toshio G. Tsukahira. Feudal Control in Tokugawa Japan: the Sankin Kotai System. (Cambridge: Harvard East Asian Monographs, 1966), pp. 39, 52-53.

(Friday Night History) Kōtōdai Park

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dr. Ōtsuki Fumihiko in later years.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


(Friday Night History) At Any Cost

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But the story doesn’t end here.

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

Folklorist Mihara Ryokichi puts it like this; translation mine:

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

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

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

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

kyou idete

asu yori nochi wa

sode no tsuyu

hosu koto araji

akasu wakare ni

I set out today,

and from tomorrow on

I shall not dry the dew on my sleeves

to make plain my parting

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

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

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

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

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


(Friday Night History) Things Not to Say

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There’s a concept in Japanese religion called kotodama. It’s the idea that words have spirit– they have power. In the interest of a formal definition by people who specialize in Shinto studies, kotodama defined by Kokugakuin’s Encyclopedia of Shinto: 

Kotodama refers to the spiritual power that is contained within words, but also refers to the conception that spiritual power can be manifested through the intonation of words. 

While one interpretation of this can take a more supernatural tack, another is much more practical: words have some measure of power even in a mundane sense, so it’s best to watch your choice of words. That being said, Japanese has a lot of homophones. Some of them sound like ruling family names and their court titles, and it’s here that our story begins this week.

Let’s back up just a bit to the Heian era, first. Stay with me– I promise it’ll make some kind of sense.

So. Mutsu Province– Mutsu-no-kuni– was an old imperial province spanning the entirety of the modern Tohoku region’s Pacific Coast; the other one being Dewa Province, on the Sea of Japan coast. Its territory now comprises the territorial extents of Aomori, Iwate, Miyagi, and Fukushima Prefectures. As one of two provinces in northern Honshu, it was originally called Michinoku, because it was michi no oku– beyond where the road from Kyoto ended in Shirakawa, and was thus the outback to the imperial court. It was a frontier province so it wasn’t exactly like other imperial provinces, in that its administration was partly military. Still, as with the other imperial provinces, it was governed by an imperial governor– as with other governorates, this ended in no kami, ergo the governor of Mutsu was Mutsu no kami. And long after governorships became sinecures, the title survived. While not all Edo period daimyo’s imperial titles corresponded to the province they lived in, sometimes they did. This was the case with the house of Date, whose ruling lord held the title of Mutsu no kami.

Referring to a daimyo by their given name was rude and exceedingly familiar, of course. That being the case, court title was one way that people (not everyone) referred to a daimyo. Starting in the early 17th century, the Shogunate promulgated laws like the Buke Shohatto and Kinchu narabini kuge shohatto, which strictly regulated not only the imperial court but also the purview of the Emperor and the constraints of granting and inheritance of imperial titles by people in the warrior caste. So with domain, Shogunate, and imperial bureaucracy tied up in all of it, one didn’t just simply throw this or any other title around. The house of Date itself also carefully regulated the use of the word “Mutsu” and other words intersecting with the family names or court titles of the daimyo’s immediate family. Of particular interest to it were the titles of Mutsu no kami, held by the ruling lord, as well as Mimasaka no kami and Echizen no kami, two alternate titles that were held by the lord’s heir apparent. So a Sendai merchant or craftsman couldn’t have any of those province names in their business’s name or displayed on their shop curtain (noren). According to folklorist and local historian Mihara Ryokichi, anyone who was in violation of this regulation would be identified by the city magistrate’s patrol officers and investigated by the magistrate’s office. More than a few people ran afoul of this prohibition particularly early in the Edo period.

But there’s plenty of words in Japanese that only happen to overlap because they’re homophones– this is, after all, partly the basis of how Japanese poetry works, too, and how puns are so easy to make. So, you may well ask, what would people do to get around these sorts of prohibitions on certain words, and words that sound like those words?

A particularly notable case, according to Mihara, is the case of the dawn hour– by the old Japanese clock, the “rising six”– akemutsu. Remember, there’s that “mutsu” in there– a no-go, if you’re living in Date lands. But rather than phrase “six” as “mutsu,” people in Sendai learned to call that hour of the clock by the other reading of six– thus, akemutsu in Sendai was akeroku. The introduction of the western method of timekeeping notwithstanding, older people in Sendai were still calling it that into the early 20th century. Other things affected by this ban include a type of fish called mutsu, and even diapers, which with honorific are called o-mutsu to this day.

This wasn’t the only case of this kind of prohibition and enforcement; some Date vassals also did this within their territories.

Let me back up and sidebar again for a moment, here.

Sendai domain was unique in that it had a microcosm of the Shogunate-domain (bakuhan taisei) system in place. Sendai domain was very large, and unwieldy to manage from one or two castles, as most other domains were managed in the Edo period. Thus, Date vassals held landholdings throughout the domain and performed alternate attendance on the lord in Sendai just as the lord performed alternate-attendance on the shogun, his overlord, in Edo. This was a system the Date had used for centuries, dating back to before the Edo period’s onset in the 17th century. Senior vassals held castles– called fortresses (yogai) to stay within the letter of the Shogunate law on castles– but many Date vassals, great and small, held landholdings throughout the domain where they lived at least part of the time. Yet it was only the seniormost– many of them cousins of the daimyo who held daimyo-level (10,000+ koku) income, who had similar prohibitions to the daimyo’s rules about commoners’ use of titles of interest like Mutsu no kami. The Date of Watari forbade commoners use the word Awa, which was part of its family head’s court title of Awa-no-kami– with the result that the grain coincidentally called awa (millet) was called kigane (“yellow-gold”) in the Watari-Date lands. In the holdings of the Wakuya-Date, the season of autumn– aki in Japanese– was called koharu (little spring) instead, in order to avoid a namespace collision with the hereditary Wakuya title of Aki no kami. And in the lands of the Watari of Sanuma (not the same as the Date of Watari!), a broom (hoki) was called a hahaki, to avoid sounding like the Watari title of Hoki no kami. In all, a heck of a lot of circumlocutions, there.

But Sendai wasn’t the only domain where this was the case, even just in northern Honshu. North of the Date lands, in the territory of lord Nanbu of Morioka, a straw overcoat was called a kera, in order to avoid using the more common term of mino, as the Nanbu lord’s hereditary court title was Mino no kami. And to the south, in nearby Nihonmatsu, home of the Niwa family, even holidays were influenced by this practice of avoiding the daimyo’s name. The house of Niwa was a daimyo family in the Edo period, which ruled the Nihonmatsu domain in what’s now Fukushima Prefecture. Its claim to fame is that it once served the house Oda of Owari Province; Niwa Nagahide was one of the clan elders who served the great Oda Nobunaga during his 16th century campaigns of unification in central Japan. Only a few decades later, the Niwa family eventually came to rule Nihonmatsu domain, a modestly sized domain– 170,000 koku, later growing to 200,000 koku– in what’s now east-central Fukushima Prefecture. Meanwhile, setsubun is a holiday that takes place today, 3 February. As a symbol of welcoming good fortune and driving away misfortune, people gather at shrines and pelt with beans people dressed as oni (ogres) while chanting “oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!” (Out with the ogres! In with the fortune!) So what does setsubun have to do with house Niwa of Nihonmatsu? “Oni wa soto” (out with the ogres) sounds a lot like “O-Niwa soto” (out with the august Niwa). So in the interest of avoiding potential trouble, people in Nihonmatsu learned to talk around it, and say “Oniisodo!” (Ogres out!) as they threw their beans. Rather surprisingly, this also continued through the early 20th century!

If we stop to think about it, this sort of practice of subtly changing what we call a thing, in order to talk about that thing while talking around that thing, is not all that strange even in the modern world. On the internet, many of us have substituted letters for asterisks in a word likely to attract the wrong kind of attention– like d*gecoin or T*rkey– or have resorted to circumlocutions about political figures, like referring to holders of certain exalted offices by their number in the pr*sidential succession prior to the forty-sixth.

See what I mean?

Anyway. Thank goodness laws change– and yet, regardless of the laws in force in the world, for better and for worse, words will always have power.


(Friday Night History) A Programming Update

Auburn City Hall. (Photo by NAB, November 2016)

So I’ve hit a wall, this week.

I got my first round of Covid 19 vaccination last Saturday, and that wound up throwing my entire week out of alignment– the rhythms of my week, from their beginning, were not in order, because I spent Saturday, Sunday, and Monday utterly wiped and with an aching arm.

The result is that I am struggling to catch up with everything, and there will be no podcast this week.


I am currently talking to an old friend who’s expressed some interest in joining me for some episodes of the podcast. We went to school together, and she’s also a historian, but unlike me, she went into primary education. We’re still ironing out the details, but I’m of the opinion that the difference in our particular avenues of work will make for good conversation.

Our first shared episode is going to be titled “Paradigm Shift.” I hope you’ll look forward to it.

(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.


  • 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?


(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?


(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.

“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?