(Friday Night History) The Shove Heard ‘Round the World, Part 1

(Pictured: USS Vincennes and USS Columbus in Japan, July 1846. Print by John Eastley. PD)

Over the last couple of weeks we’ve been looking at the mission of Captain James Glynn and the USS Preble, as it factored into the Japanese sojourn of Ranald MacDonald. Glynn’s mission was ostensibly to rescue castaways in Japanese custody but also to press the issue of initiating US-Japan trade and diplomatic relations. This was in 1849, and was the imediate antecedent to the Perry mission of 1853-1854. Glynn, however, was not the first US naval officer to attempt to singlehandedly open US-Japanese relations before Commodore Perry. Enter the mission of the lesser known Commodore James Biddle (1783-1848). He’s certainly not as well known as Perry or Glynn, but his visit to Japan has an important place in history all the same, particularly with regard to the growth of Japanese naval technology.

Commodore James Biddle. Image in PD.

Now, speaking as a Philadelphian, I sighed knowingly when I first encountered his name. Biddle, like Logan, Callowhill, Bond, Norris, and Sellers, is a very old Philadelphia family. That a Biddle was a commodore in the antebellum Navy does not come as a surprise to me at all. He was the nephew of Captain Nicholas Biddle, one of the first five captains in the US Navy, and the younger Biddle had a very eventful career, both as a naval officer as well as a diplomat. During the War against the Barbary Pirates (1801-1805) he was assigned to USS Philadelphia under the command of Captain William Bainbridge when the crew was captured following the ship’s running aground off Tripoli Harbor. He spent the war in captivity in Tripoli. Later, he took part in the War of 1812.

Later still, served on various American fleets throughout the world, in both a military and a diplomatic capacity. Biddle was in the Mediterranean in 1830 when he and consul David Offly negotiated and concluded a treaty with the Sublime Porte (the government of the Ottoman sultan) which established trade relations with the Ottoman Empire and guaranteed American extraterritoriality in the Empire. Long story short, by the time he was commander of the East India Squadron (the US Navy’s main formation operating in East Asian waters) he was an accomplished commander and diplomat.

Shortly after his arrival in China, Biddle added another success to that lengthy career when he exchanged ratifications of the Treaty of Wangxia in December of 1845, the first treaty signed between the US and the Qing Dynasty. China under the Qing had recently been defeated by the United Kingdom, and the other Euro-American powers were quickly lining up to make their own unequal treaties with the vanquished empire. But Biddle and the American diplomats in China were also aware that Japan was nearby and might, at this juncture, also be militarily unable to resist overtures by a western power. Indeed, Biddle carried a letter from then-Secretary of State John C. Calhoun which authorized Caleb Cushing, US agent in China, to open diplomatic negotiations with Japan. At the time, Biddle’s flagship was the 90-gun ship of the line USS Columbus, Captain Thomas Wyman commanding, which was accompanied by the Boston-class sloop of war USS Vincennes, under the command of Captain Hiram Paulding.

Word reached the squadron on 5 July 1846 of war with Mexico. Charles Nordhoff, who was a sailor aboard USS Columbus, writes that

“On the fifth of July, our consort vessel returned from Shanghai, with the commodore, who brought with him an official report of the declaration of war between the United States and Mexico, news which we had been for some time expecting. We immediately proceeded to sea, bound for Japan, our commodore having been intrusted by government with the delivery of a letter from the President of the United States to the Emperor of Japan, expressing a desire to open negotiations for a treaty of trade.” 

(Charles Nordhoff, later in life. Image in PD.)

In his later report to Secretary of the Navy George Bancroft, Biddle reported:

The Japanese, as you know, have always been more rigid in the exclusion of foreigners than even the Chinese. The only Europeans admitted to trade are the Dutch from Batavia; and their trade is confined to a single port, and limited to one annual ship. By the laws of Japan foreign ships are not permitted to anchor in any port of the empire, except that of Nagasaki. Any attempt to penetrate Japan made at that port would be sure to encounter the hostility of the Dutch, whose exertions have hitherto been successful against every attempt to disturb their monopoly. The Japanese officers at Nagasaki are without authority to treat foreign officers; they could not accede to any propositions; they could only transmit them to the seat of Government at Yeddo. The distance between Yeddo and Nagasaki is three hundred and forty-five leagues, and the journey between them is “usually performed in seven weeks,” according to a work on Japan published at New York in 1841. I concluded, therefore, to proceed direct to the bay of Yeddo, where I anchored on the 20th instant, the Vincennes in company.

In other words: having scored an unequal treaty with China, and hearing of the outbreak of war with Mexico, Biddle thought he could go to Japan (and go straight to Edo to avoid attracting the ire from the Dutch), snag a *different* treaty with Japan, and then smoothly pivot and head across the Pacific to join the war.

Easy, right?

We’ll see.

Sources (All Parts)

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Source Spotlight: “Man-of-War Life,” by Charles Nordhoff

As I write the draft for this week’s Friday Night History, I feel like from now on I ought to introduce some of the sources that factor into each week’s finished product. The one that particularly has my attention this week is Charles Nordhoff’s Man-of-War Life. A German-born American writer, Nordhoff (1830-1901) served in the US Navy from 1845-1848, all aboard the 90-gun ship of the line USS Columbus. While his reputation is as a writer and journalist, he spent 9 years at sea, in the Navy, the merchant service, and on whaling and fishing ships.

What’s particularly surprising to me about Man-of-War Life is that Nordhoff was aboard Columbus when, serving as Commodore Biddle’s flagship, it visited Japan in 1846. Nordhoff wouldn’t have known, but this brought him in close proximity with a number of Japanese leaders who would go on to become influential voices in the late-Edo period conversation on opening up to foreign relations and military modernization– one of them being Nakajima Saburōsuke, a political and military leader who went on to involvement in building Japan’s first modern warships.

The section in his book that covers Japan is ultimately short (all of 18 pages) but this, too, is a primary source on late Edo history that I’m excited to put to work in Friday Night History.

You can read Man-of-War Life online in its entirety! Check it out here.

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!

(Friday Night History/WIP): A Forgotten Stand-Off at Uraga

There are people– even those who are (or were) otherwise well known in their day– who get overshadowed in history. The last few weeks on #FridayNightHistory we’ve talked about US Navy Commodore James Glynn, as he pertains to the story of Ranald MacDonald’s Japan sojourn. Glynn has some measure of lingering renown through MacDonald but also as the immediate predecessor to the Perry mission of 1853. Glynn’s predecessor in the US Navy’s failed attempts to force the opening of Japan, Commodore James Biddle, does not have the same lingering renown.

Biddle and his mission, and the Japanese leaders who faced him, are our subject this week!

For more, and an early glimpse of the next Friday Night History as a work-in-progress, become a patron today at https://www.patreon.com/posts/friday-night-wip-42647858

Friday Night History: Ranald MacDonald, the First ALT (Parts 1 and 2)

Bas-relief memorial of Ranald MacDonald in Nagasaki. (Image in PD)

Okay, so. Our story begins with Ranald MacDonald (1824-1894), who it must be said from the beginning of our story, was not in the hamburger business. He was born in British North America at Fort Astoria, in what’s now Oregon; his father Archibald was a Hudson’s Bay Company trader, and his mother Koale’xoa was a daughter of Comcomly, a leader of the Lower Chinook people. And after an early working career that included a stint as a clerk in a bank, MacDonald decided in his early 20s that he would visit Japan.

Yes, Japan was still in the midst of its policy of carefully controlled international contact. Yes, it wasn’t easy to even get to Japan legally. But Ranald MacDonald didn’t care: he wanted very much to go to Japan, to learn about it and to teach Japanese people about the western world. So, signing on with the American whaling ship Plymouth in 1845, he made his way westward, until in 1848, the ship was off the coast of western Ezochi (now northwestern Hokkaido).

You have to understand. European and American whalers in the early to mid 19th century were only increasing in number.  No less than Herman Melville himself, in his famous novel Moby-Dick, said the following:

If that double-bolted land, Japan, is ever to become hospitable, it is the whale-ship alone to whom the credit will be due; for already she is on the threshold. 

 It wasn’t just Americans, either– British, Russians, French, and many others, appeared in Japanese waters with increasing frequency, and regardless of Japanese laws surrounding national seclusion, they couldn’t legislate away the fact that these foreign ships were coming in increasing numbers, a trend that was only to increase with the increase of steamship traffic in the area as well. And there was a distinct school of thought in some circles of Japanese political leadership that there should be some sort of adaptation of the seclusion laws, at the very least in the interest of improving Japan’s capability to defend itself against potential foreign aggression. The house of Date, of Sendai domain was a prominent advocate of this. Being tasked with coast defense duty in Ezochi, its troops regularly encountered Russian warships.

So, this was a problem for Tokugawa Japan, and it wasn’t going away.

Fast forward to the summer of 1848. MacDonald talked the Plymouth’s captain into letting him disembark. So, with all his belongings and clothes and supplies in a little boat, he was dropped off, and headed in the vague direction of Hokkaido, hoping for the best.

Eventually, while practically freezing to death and falling out of his own boat along the way, MacDonald washed ashore in Rishiri, a little island off the coast of Ezochi. And of course, the first people to find him was the local Ainu community, who turned him over to the authorities of Matsumae domain, the sole domain in Ezochi. At the time, the island was not part of Japan (that came in 1869), but was actively being colonized. So, after passing through Hakodate, MacDonald was sent south to Nagasaki– he was a foreigner, after all, and the one legal place for foreigners to enter Japan (or wait to get picked up to be sent out of Japan) was there.

He wasn’t the only person who went to Nagasaki  by way of Hakodate.

15 men from the (now famous) New Bedford whaler Lagoda— mutineers– also washed ashore in Ezochi, not far from Hakodate. They, too, were sent to Nagasaki, and held in confinement under the supervision of the Nagasaki Magistrate, the city’s governor who oversaw Nagasaki as a direct possession of the Tokugawa Shogunate. They tried to escape, failed, were placed under stricter observation and interrogated with increasing severity. The Dutch factor of Dejima, Joseph Henrij Levijssohn, was aware of their situation and secretly sent for aid to the Dutch diplomatic delegation at the port of Canton, in China, who passed the news on to the local American diplomats for help with repatriating the Lagoda mutineers. The US East India Squadron took on the task of recovering the shipwrecked mutineers, along with MacDonald.

At the time, the Shogunate’s interpreters and other linguists in the feudal clans in Japan by and large spoke Dutch, and only had a basic, mostly secondhand knowledge of English. So, while MacDonald waited in Nagasaki for the next ship to come get him, ironically, he got his wish to have cultural exchange and language instruction. The Shogunate, taking advantage of a native speaker while they had one, sent 14 interpreters to study English with MacDonald. So if you’re a former JET or other ALT who works/worked in Japan, Ranald MacDonald was the first one to do what you’re doing!

But the US government’s agents in East Asia were on the move.

Portrait of USS Preble. Image in PD 

Enter Captain James Glynn, commanding USS Preble, a sloop of the US Navy’s East India Squadron. There had been prior American attempts, again driven by whalers, to force diplomatic relations on the Tokugawa Shogunate, but they had never panned out. But Glynn had a mission to pick up castaways, and received orders that he was not to back down in pursuing negotiations with the Shogunate if at all possible.

So while MacDonald kept busy teaching English in Nagasaki, the Preble set sail for Japan.

* * *

Having received word from Joseph Henrij Levijssohn, Dutch factor of Dejima, that the whaler Lagoda’s 15 mutineers needed urgent repatriation due to harsh conditions of confinement by the Shogunate authorities, the USS Preble under the command of Captain James Glynn (1800-1871) sailed to Nagasaki from Canton, China, with the mission of recovering the mutineers, who were then being held in confinement by the Nagasaki Magistrate. Preble, named for early US naval officer Commodore Edward Preble (1761-1807) and the 2nd ship to bear the name, was a 16-gun sloop of war, built in 1839 and commissioned in 1840 at Portsmouth Navy Yard in Kittery, Maine. First serving with the US Navy’s African Squadron, she transferred to the Pacific Squadron in 1846, where she took part in the Mexican-American War, before continuing on to the East India Squadron, which was the squadron to which she belonged in 1848. 1848 found her under the command of James Glynn, and the squadron under the command of Commodore David Geisinger (1790-1860).

In his later deposition to Captain Glynn, Ranald MacDonald related that he had arrived in Nagasaki on 15 October 1848. After trampling on an image of the Virgin Mary (the type of image called in Japanese a fumi-e, a “stepping image,” meant to prove that a person wasn’t Catholic), he was interrogated by “the governor.” While there was no set method for translation of Japanese titles into English at the time, we can reasonably assume given the fumi-e and the status of Nagasaki as a city under direct Shogunate control, that this was the Nagasaki magistrate, who as best as I can work out given sources on hand, was either Inaba Masanobu or Hiraga Katsusada, both of them Tokugawa vassals. After figuring out that he wasn’t a Catholic, the magistrate had a range of questions for MacDonald– where was he from? What ship did he arrive on? Who was its captain? Why had it sailed into Japanese waters? 

Relaying these questions was an interpreter named Moriyama Einosuke (1820-1872). He was already well versed in Dutch, but was one of the few people in Japan at the time who had any command of English at all. Per MacDonald’s testimony, Moriyama was one of the Japanese officials who was most regularly with him. As we’ll see later, he left quite an impression on Moriyama.


Portrait of Moriyama Einosuke (left). Image in Public Domain

“The common people appeared to be amiable and friendly, but the government agents were the reverse,” MacDonald noted in his testimony to Glynn. And he discovered that the interpreters assigned to him, most notably Moriyama, were interested in improving their grasp of English. Fourteen men studied with MacDonald in this way: Nishi Yoichiro, Uemura Sakushichiro, Nishi Keitaro, Ogawa Keijuro, Shioya Tanesaburo, Nakayama Hyoma, Inomata Dennosuke, Shizuki Tatsuichiro, Iwase Yashiro, Hori Ichiro, Shige Takanosuke, Namura Tsunenosuke, Motoki Shozaemon, and of course, Moriyama Einosuke himself. Almost daily these men studied with him.  They would read to him, he would correct their pronounciation and explain meanings as needed. As opposed to earlier English instruction which happened piecemeal and through Dutch speakers whose own grasp of English was non-native, this was the first proper English instruction to take place in Japan.

MacDonald was kept in the custody of the Nagasaki magistrate until the 24th of April, when he was handed over to the Dutch factor Levijssohn, while negotiations were underway with Captain Glynn. 

Per its logbook, Preble arrived off Nagasaki on the 18th of April (though MacDonald says he heard guns firing to announce Preble’s approach on the 17th); its entry into the harbor was initially blocked by coast patrol boats of the Shogunate, but Glynn forced his way through their picket line, anchoring inside the harbor and refusing to move until his demands, chief of which was repatriation of the Lagoda mutineers. With a bit of help from the Dutch factor at Dejima, negotiation did happen, and was concluded successfully, as MacDonald noted:

“On the morning of the twenty-sixth of April, the interpreter came to my prison, and exhibited a letter, translated into English, purporting to be a communication to the commanding officer of the Preble, requiring him to leave the harbor of [Nagasaki], on the reception of the fifteen men.”

Per Preble’s log, the ship left Nagasaki on April 27th; MacDonald’s deposition to Captain Glynn was given 3 days later, en route to Woosung (modern Wusong, in northern Shanghai). Ranald MacDonald’s time in Japan was over.

On reaching Hong Kong on May 21, MacDonald disembarked from Preble and took the long way home, by way of Australia and Europe. He returned home to Canada in 1853. Despite several more business ventures and travels, he was unable to escape financial hardship at the end of his life. He died in 1894 in Washington State, where he’s buried in Ferry County.

* * *

Our story doesn’t end here.

Captain Glynn’s report was influential in shaping US policy toward Japan in the near term, and sure enough, a mere 4 years later, Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry’s fleet anchored off Uraga Bay to deliver President Millard Fillmore’s letter to the shogun urging (backed up by Perry’s naval guns) the opening of Japan, and achieved by sheer firepower what Glynn could not achieve with a single ship. Initial discussions with the local Shogunate officials happened via Dutch- and Chinese-speaking Japanese interpreters–Perry, in turn, had brought along Samuel Wells Williams (1812-1884) as an interpreter. Williams was a missionary and linguist who worked in Canton (modern Guangzhou) for the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. Years earlier, he had been on the Morrison mission, an abortive, private attempt to open diplomatic negotiations with the Japanese government under the pretext of returning Japanese castaways; he was fluent in Chinese and had some knowledge of Dutch and Japanese as well.

Samuel Wells Willams, sketched by Hibata Osuke. Image in PD

Williams was one of the handful of people allowed to keep a private journal of the Perry mission. In his entry for Friday, March 3, 1854, he noted the arrival of a “new and superior interpreter” from Nagasaki, who came up in a hurry to aid in the negotiations, then in their second phase. Williams said that the man “speaks English well enough to render any other interpreter unnecessary,” and that:

“He inquired for the captain and officers of the ” Preble,” and asked if Ronald McDonald was well, or if we knew him.”

The interpreter was Moriyama Einosuke.

Works Cited

Friday Night History, 18 Sept. 2020: “Koike Chikyoku, Combat Artist”

Meandering Stream at Lanting (detail), a nanga painting by Suzuki Fuyō, 1806. (PD)

History is a living thing. And like any living thing, it is not perfect– it has gaps of many kinds.

First and foremost, let’s bear in mind– the things that happened in the past, and the things we write about the things that happened in the past, are two things, which we both call history. But they are not the same as each other! And the documentary evidence on which we base those writings can have gaps of many kinds.

One kind of gap is missing or fragmentary records. We need to be careful, of course, because absence of evidence doesn’t equal evidence, and we need to remember that fragmentary doesn’t mean things won’t turn up later. Case in point: the now standard biographical photo of Saito Hajime, on whom I did another thread, had been “lost” in a descendant’s attic for many years. When I began studying 1860s Japan, there were no photos of Saito. Now there are. Long story short, documents turn up, fill the gaps, alter perceptions, and in turn, alter the histories we write.

History, dear reader, is a living thing.

My study of Koike Chikyoku is a case in point, for this. She’s not a famous historical figure by any means– far from it. You really have to dig to find references about her. And yet. And yet! What little I have has grown in the time I’ve known of her. 

She was born in 1824, in Fukudome, in what’s now Hakusan, Ishikawa Prefecture. Her father was a warrior in service to the house of Maeda, who ruled that region, then called Kanazawa or Kaga domain. As a young woman, Chikyoku– also known as Koike Shisetsu– traveled Japan in pursuit of an art education. Stylistically, her work is classed in the Chinese-influenced black-ink nanga style. Nanga is not the same as manga– nanga is also known as bunjinga, “literati painting,” for its artists considered themselves literati in the style of their Chinese counterparts. While as an artist she isn’t a household name by any means, Chikyoku’s name appears in a 1913 appraisal guide listing the values of the work of historic and contemporary artists and calligraphers.

She was in Kyoto in the 1860s, when public security for the city was in the hands of the northern Aizu domain. At the Boshin War’s outbreak, she went north to Aizu, where she fought in an all-female unit. This is thought to be the same all-female unit in which Nakano Takeko fought, but I can’t prove that with what resources I’ve amassed. Taken captive, she was released once it became clear that she was an outsider and not actually owing any feudal allegiance or obligation to Aizu. She continued her art, went to Toyohashi, in the Tokai region, and lived to age 54, dying in 1878.

We don’t know a lot about her personal life– and we don’t have a known portrait of her either— but there’s an interesting tidbit from Ishikawa ken-shi (A History of Ishikawa Prefecture) Vol. 3 that gives just enough information to raise as many questions as it answers:

 “Chikyoku detested men. It was her custom, even in lodgings on the road, to put up a sign cordoning off her quarters and forbidding their entry.”

Well now. What’s going on here?

In my recent interview with Heather Rose Jones of the @LesbianMotif podcast, we touched on the changes in language surrounding queer identities through history. We also talked about how historical figures’ orientations and identities may not fit neatly into modern, especially western, boxes– despite the tendency among those of us who are some stripe of LGBTQ today, to “name and claim.”

So, I read that quote about Chikyoku and I wonder. Much as the “man-hating lesbian” trope is a homophobic trope, some non-male queer folks I know today do feel strongly about wanting to avoid close quarters with men, so, might Chikyoku have been what we would now call queer? Might she have had other reasons for going to such lengths to keep away from men? Consider, also, that she went all the way across Japan to a northern fief she probably hadn’t visited before, and fought in an all-female unit. This seems a great length to have gone to, for a freewheeling, unorthodox artist who likely had little if any formal training as a combatant. So what was the driving force, here?

As I said– raises more questions than it answers. But that’s okay! My understanding of Chikyoku’s life has evolved, and will continue to evolve.

My sources– working from the US, without academic affiliation– are limited. But even when I still had academic affiliation, I remember there wasn’t much in the way of ready sources about her. She was, after all, hardly the only nanga artist of her era, and hardly the most notable woman to have gone to war in the Boshin War. However, my present picture of her has evolved, particularly as I find more sources reaching digitization. In time, I will get to return to Japan, and scour local archives, and this too will change things.

When I first learned about her in 2006, I never imagined there’d be enough to say about her to fill an entire thread of short posts, let alone the longer article form this thread took on my Patreon. I wrote an article about her in 2017 for Gutsy Broads too, and I have more to say here than I did there. And now, I think I’m better able to come to grips with that fundamental truth:

History changes. And that’s just as it should be.

* * *

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Friday Night History for 25 Sept. 2020: Asakusa Danzaemon and the Boshin War

Modern-day view of one of the gates of Sensōji, a temple in Asakusa. Asakusa is the district that was once home to Danzaemon (public domain)

We have to start from the theoretical, this week, and then work our way to the personal. Bear with me.

So let’s talk about caste (mibun seido 身分制度) in Edo period Japan. Generally speaking, caste in the Edo period is divided into 4 statuses: warrior, farmer, artisan, merchant, in descending order of standing. The warrior caste ruled, but in time the economic power shifted increasingly to the other castes. But they weren’t the only castes in Japan. This is where the untouchables come in.

There are different terms of them throughout history. By the 1860s, in the late Edo era, the two major terms are hinin and eta. They were deemed untouchable for a variety of reasons, not just limited to working with leather, which was especially considered a ritually polluting act.

The eta of eastern Japan– in the Kanto region, the Tokai, and up into the Tohoku region– were under the authority of a man named Danzaemon, who was the etagashira, or head eta. Danzaemon was a hereditary name passed down in this family line among its heads; by 1868, this was Danzaemon XIII, who was also known as Dan Naoki– I’ll call him “Danzaemon” for the purpose of consistency.

Danzaemon XIII, alias Dan Naoki (1823-1889) [public domain]

His official residence was in the Asakusa district of Edo– Asakusa district in modern day Taito, Tokyo– so he’s also known as Asakusa Danzaemon. Despite the low status of eta vis a vis the Japanese caste structure, the holder of the name Danzaemon lived well, held an estate, derived income from some of the economic activities of eta under his jurisdiction, and enjoyed considerable autonomy in matters pertaining to eta, including the right to try and punish eta in the areas under his jurisdiction. For his meritorious service in the Chōshū War, the Shogunate awarded him the status of commoner, though he retained authority over the eta. But his authority wasn’t just over eta– indeed, even some performers of sacred and auspicious arts in eastern Japan were under Danzaemon’s authority.

But it was more than this, that was under Danzaemon’s authority– and that brings us to the Boshin War.

At the outbreak of the Boshin War in early 1868, Danzaemon was in Edo when the remnants of the Tokugawa government and military leadership arrived from their headlong retreat from the Kyoto-Osaka area. The ex-shogun, Tokugawa Yoshinobu, had allowed the nascent Kyoto government led by Satsuma and Chōshū domains to outmaneuver and provoke him into action, then did not press home his numerical advantage, which led to his rout from Kyoto. Thus, the necessary course of action before his administration in those early days of the war in February 1868 was to buy time for friendly forces to regroup and secure the Kanto plain and its approaches, around Edo.

Shinsengumi is one of the Shogunate’s more famous units. It, too, took part in the fighting outside Kyoto, and its survivors returned to Edo, with the first of them arriving aboard the Shogunate Navy warship Fujiyama-maru on 8 February 1868. Shinsengumi’s troopers sought medical treatment, rearmed, re-equipped with western-style uniforms, and awaited further orders; these came on 21 March, when the ex-Shogunate leadership ordered them to attack and hold Kai Province to the west, which was a key piece of land normally under direct Tokugawa control. Shinsengumi troop strength had dwindled somewhat– the unit was still reassembling itself after getting routed and split outside of Kyoto and prior to moving out on its mission, numbered around 70– so recruitment was also an important priority.

Shinsengumi is famous for having recruited regardless of caste since its formation in 1863. Mind you, at this point in the late Edo into early Meiji period, caste had less and less real meaning– quite often, a person could become a warrior simply by buying the status! So with that in mind, it should come as no surprise that they did not oppose the inclusion of about 100 people from under Danzaemon’s jurisdiction as reinforcements. And these weren’t simply untrained draftees– they were trained in western-style infantry drill.

Danzaemon may have been elevated to ordinary commoner, but his jurisdiction was still over eta. So, yes. The reinforced Shinsengumi went out to Kai numbering closer to 200, thanks to the chief eta.

Sadly, Shinsengumi commander Kondo Isami lost what initiative he’d possessed, and the unit was routed at the Battle of Kashio by the Kyoto government’s troops in that sector, a force of 1200 commanded by Itagaki Taisuke.

Danzaemon survived the war and went on to serve the imperial army, hiring an American tanner named Charles Henninger and building a factory for producing western-style military footwear. While the official designation of eta and hinin was abolished once the Meiji government took power, discrimination against their descendants continues to this day.

But I do think we need to pause and think about what it meant, that the person with jurisdiction over *all* the eta of eastern Japan had but to command it, and 100 people would answer.

Even people downtrodden by unequal political systems have power.

I’m Nyri and this has been #FridayNightHistory!Now– questions?


  • “Dan Naoki.” On Kotobank.jp https://kotobank.jp/word/%E5%BC%BE%E7%9B%B4%E6%A8%B9-1091072 Accessed 24 September 2020.
  • De Vos,  George A. , and Hiroshi Wagatsuma. Japan’s Invisible Race: Caste in Culture and Personality (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972), p. 29 
  • Ishii Takashi, Ishin no Nairan, (Tokyo: Shiseido, 1977), p. 285.
  • Kikuchi Akira, “Toba-Fushimi no tatakai kara Nagareyama made,” pp. 96-109, in Shinsengumi Saitō Hajime no subete. (Tokyo: Shin Jinbutsu Ōraisha, 2003) pp. 101-102.
  • ___, Shinsengumi 101 no Nazo. (Tokyo: Shin Jinbutsu Oraisha, 2000), pp. 201-203.
  • Mason, RHP & JG Caiger, A History of Japan (Rutland, VT: Tuttle, 1997), p. 220-222.
  • Nishiyama Matsunosuke, Edo Culture. (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1997) p. 116.
  • Ōishi Manabu, Shinsengumi: Saigo no bushi no jitsuzō. (Tokyo: Chūōkōron-shinsha, 2001), p. 189.
  • Onodera Eikō, Boshin nanboku sensō to Tohoku seiken (Sendai: Kita no mori, 2005), p. 190.
  • Sasama Yoshihiko. Edo Machibugyō Jiten. (Tokyo: Kashiwa Shobō, 1995), p. 132.
  • Shiomi Sen’ichirō. Danzaemon Seido to Senmin Bunka. (Tokyo: Hihyōsha, 1992), p. 149.
  • Tezuka Tatsumaro, Twenty-five Tales in Memory of Tokyo’s Foreigners. (Tokyo: Tokyo Metropolitan Government, 1989), p. 23.

Friday Night History for 11 September 2020: Jito 地頭

Those of you who follow me on Twitter may know me for my Friday Night History threads! Here is a sample of one of the recent ones, originally written for my audience on Patreon. To support this and the rest of my work, sign up at http://patreon.com/riversidewings or send a few dollars my way via Paypal at paypal dot me slash riversidewings

(Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gu, in Kamakura, Kanagawa. Image from Unsplash)

SALUTATIONS you magnificent shining stars of the Twitterverse! It is time once again for the felicitous event of #FridayNightHistory and a thread about JITO 地頭, a local office in the Kamakura era and an interesting point of history to help understand how the system that came before was unraveled, and how the foundations of many Warring States clans were laid.

So before we talk about jito, we need to talk about shoen 荘園. Shoen were estates across Japan in the Heian era (794-1185) from which the imperial court, the court nobles, and major temples drew their income. But the thing is that shoen are way out in the sticks, and if you’re a court noble, it’s kind of a drag to be away from the capital where all the culture and political power is. So, little by little, the administration of shoen got assigned to the people who worked for the nobility, and the nobles didn’t usually go all the way out to inspect their shoen in person.

To simplify a long and complicated train of events, eventually, these people, who also had weapons, realized “hey, we have swords, we don’t have to care much, do we?”– and thus you had the birth of what became the warrior caste. Some of these warriors rose to great political power themselves, and it’s one of those leaders, Minamoto no Yoritomo, who was appointed shogun in 1192. This was the start of what we call the Kamakura era, the first of several eras of warrior rule. Kamakura, in eastern Japan, was Yoritomo’s seat of government.

The thing is, the imperial government and the shoen system didn’t instantly go away. The court still named provincial governors who still went out to the provinces, and Yoritomo’s power was, ostensibly, at the emperor’s pleasure. What happened was that Yoritomo gained the ability to name his own people to greater or lesser positions of local or regional governance, and thus meant he could reward followers to whom he couldn’t grant land rights outright. There’s more than one of this kind of position, but for now, let’s just focus on the jito– spelled 地頭 (“land-head”).

A jito’s job was ostensibly to protect the proprietary rights of those landholders who were absentee– the emperor, the nobles, the temples, etcetera. A jito ensured collection of rents from people on shoen land, ensured that the proprietor received their share, possessed the power to maintain order on the land and render criminal punishment, settled disputes among cultivators, and managed the land in general. This was originally more in eastern Japan, but over time, spread to western Japan as the shogunate’s control solidified there. While in theory, this was just a managerial position for an absent landlord, in practice, this solidified control of the land in the hands of these appointees, who answered to Kamakura more directly than to the emperor or the courtiers in Kyoto. As the centuries wore on, it was those local rulers, and not the absentees in Kyoto, who had the actual power and claim to that land.

As such, this– and other, higher offices held by Kamakura vassals– is where many local warrior clans of later prominence had their origins. It was an ending, and a beginning. And it may surprise you to note, but it turns out that women could also be jito!

A relatively low office, to be sure, but it’s one of those things that helps to understand, to make sense of transitions between eras and systems of administration.

I’m Nyri and this has been a bureaucratic #FridayNightHistory!

Now, questions?


  • Peter Duus, Feudalism in Japan (New York: Knopf, 1969), p. 116
  • RHP Mason & JG Caiger, A History of Japan (Rutland, VT: Tuttle, 1997), p. 130
  • Nihon no Rekishi 4: Kamakura Bushi (Tokyo: Yomiuri Shinbunsha, Showa 38 [1965]), pp. 81-85
  • “Bushi no Seikatsu: Josei no Jito”  武士の生活(女性の地頭)Available at Yamaguchi Prefectural Archives, accessed 10 Sept 2020 http://archives.pref.yamaguchi.lg.jp/user_data/upload/File/ags/2-1-3-010.pdf