(Translations) the Naoe Letter

This is the Naoe Letter, named for its author, Naoe Kanetsugu (1559-1620), who was a senior vassal in service to Uesugi Kagekatsu (1556-1623). It was written 421 years ago tomorrow, as I type this!

17th century portrait of Naoe Kanetsugu. (Image in PD)

He wrote it in response to a letter sent to Kagekatsu from Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616) via the monk Seishō Jōtai (1548-1607). This was in the lead-up to the Battle of Sekigahara, where Ieyasu was at the center of one faction and his rival Ishida Mitsunari (1559-1600) centered a different faction.

Historic portrait of Seishō Jōtai. (Image in PD)

I see the Naoe Letter as Kanetsugu throwing down the gauntlet pretty hard. Unfortunately for him, the Uesugi clan lost in the Sekigahara Campaign, during which they were faced and contained by the armies of the house of Date, at the Battle of Hasedō.

* * *

I have this day received your letter of the first of the fourth month, which arrived yesterday, the 13th. I was most pleased to receive and to read it.

ITEM: Regarding our province, there are many false rumors circulating at present. So there isn’t much we can do about the Interior Minister (Ieyasu) holding reservations. Furthermore, as these rumors are now spreading it Kyoto and Fushimi, there isn’t anything that can be done. Aizu is a distant country, and my lord Kagekatsu is young, so naturally he is the target of rumor . We aren’t worried, so please be reassured.

ITEM: Regarding why Kagekatsu will not come to Kyoto, all manner of things are being said. Barely two years ago our fief was transferred, and in no time we went up to Kyoto, returning only on the 9th month of last year. Even so in this years first month we were again ordered to report to Kyoto. When can we be expected to care for our own lands’ affairs? This land is snow country, so from the 10th to the 3rd months nothing can be done. If you ask anyone who knows this land, they’ll understand. So given our request to delay our trip to Kyoto, you’ll understand that the rumors that Kagekatsu is traitorous are misunderstandings.

ITEM: You’ve said that if Kagekatsu harbors no traitorous motives then he should submit a vow affirming this. We have sent several written pledges since the Taikō’s death, but they’ve all been ignored. So sending in another document is pointless.

ITEM: Since [his service to] the Taikō, Kagekatsu has been known as an upstanding person- this has not changed. This is contrary to the world’s fickle ways.

ITEM: Kagektasu is absolutely not harboring ulterior motives. If you do not investigate and expose these evil words of strangers, and assume that he is treacherous, then it can’t be helped., Otherwise we would ask to have the chance to face our accusers and ascertain the truth of the matter. If not, then the Interior Minister is being dishonest.

ITEM: As regards Lord Hizen-no-kami of Kaga (Maeda Toshinaga), things have been settled between him and the Interior Minister. We assume this is because of the Interior Minister’s influence.

ITEM: As for Mashita Nagamori and Ōtani Yoshitsugu’s promotions, we’ve heard about it in detail. It is truly most felicitous. Sakakibara Yasumasa has acted as official go-between. And even if Kagekatsu’s stance of opposition was public, hearing opposing viewpoints is part of what’s right as a warrior. This would also serve the Interior Minister. It is better if it is known whether or not somebody is a loyal or treacherous vassal.

ITEM: First, as the matter concerns baseless rumors, we refuse to come to Kyoto. Our reasons are as stated above.

ITEM: Second, It’s been said of our gathering of weapons and materiel that we’re preparing for rebellion. These actions are the same as when warriors of central Japan gather tea implements, charcoal scuttles, and gourds. Please consider we backcountry warriors gathering spears, guns, bows and arrows as simply a difference of culture.  Even if he was planning action, what could someone in Kagekatsu’s position do? Isn’t making this into a problem a judgment that is unbecoming for the realm?

ITEM: Third, regarding roads and bridges, this is to make travel more convenient. It is the duty of one who rules a province. When Kagekatsu ruled Echigo he did the same; those bridges and roads are still extant. Here in Aizu we already built roads that go to Kōzuke, Shimotsuke, Iwaki, Sōma, Masamune’s territory, Mogami, Yuri, and Senboku, and nobody on the other side of those borders said anything. Incidentally, only the Lord Kenmotsu, Hori Naomasa, has feared this construction and spread various lies that betray a lack of understanding of what befits a warrior. The fact that only Hori Kenmotsu has made an issue of this road construction shows that he is a thoughtless person who knows nothing of the warrior’s way. If Kagekatsu had any evil intent, then Hori would’ve run into border security and adequately prepared defenses. If you doubt this, send messengers to check our border crossings from other provinces, and I believe you will understand.

ITEM: The third month of this year was the requiem for Lord Kenshin. Kagekatsu planned to come to Kyoto after that, in the summer. As he readied his arms and administered his lands’ business of government, messengers came from Ōtani and Mashita, relaying the Interior Minister’s demands that if Kagekatsu had no treacherous aims then he should come to Kyoto. But as you’ve relayed these false charges to us, if you look closely then you’ll know we harbor no deception.

Yet even though we’ve said that Kagekatsu has no traitorous intent, to receive the retort of “if you don’t, then come to Kyoto” is to be treated like a child. This world, where one who until yesterday was a traitor can, feigning ignorance, go to Kyoto and receive a reward, does not suit Kagekatsu. Though the rumors are baseless, if Kagekatsu entered Kyoto in the midst of all these lies about his intent, we would lose all honor earned by generations of Uesugi arms.

So  because you will not confront the people spreading these rumors, then we cannot come to Kyoto.

Kagekatsu is unmistakably right on this matter. We are especially aware that in the middle of the 7th month, Kagekatsu’s vassal Fujita Noto-no-kami left this clan for Edo and then went on to Kyoto. Is Kagekatsu wrong or is Ieyasu dishonest? We will leave it to the world to decide.

ITEM: Many words are unnecessary: Kagekatsu has not a whit of rebellious intent. But we are being set up so as to be unable come to Kyoto, and only be able to come by the Interior Minister’s determination. To remain at home would violate the Taikō’s will, and our pledges have already been ignored. What’s more, it would betray our young master Hideyori. Even if we were to raise our forces and make Kagekatsu ruler of the realm, we would not be able to escape the stigma of being evil men. It would be a shame for all time. Could anyone rebel withour reservations? Rest at ease. But if you believe the words of evil men as being true, then oaths and promises are pointless.

ITEM: Rumors are circulating that Kagekatsu is traitorous. They also claim that he is sending troops to garrison castles, and preparing provisions. These are the baseless words of strangers, so there is no need to heed them.

ITEM: Sending messengers to explain things to the Interior Minister is called for. Incidentally, on both the lies of evil people from beyond our borders, and Uesugi vassal Fujita Noto-no-kami’s betrayal, because Kagekatsu is suspected of treachery, there isn’t anything that can be done. If what I’ve explained above doesn’t clarify things, then there’s nothing more to be said.

ITEM: No matter what, our land is far away, so as you might surmise, the truth about us becomes like lies. It should be needless to say so, but I have written things plainly for your eyes to see.

You know the right and wrong of the world, so I have written this simply. I have voiced most humbly my reservations. To gain your will, I have spoken without concern for any rudeness. Please convey my words.

With reverent esteem.

Keichō 5, 14th of the 4th Month

[26 May 1600]

Naoe Yamashiro no kami

(to) Seishō Jōtai of Hōkō-ji

(Friday Night History) Ogata Kōan, Connector

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There’s a kind of person in history you might have encountered before. They’re the sort of person who seems to know everyone, seems to connect lots and lots of people who you didn’t realize had that connection, and thereby makes currents of influence, communication, inspiration a lot clearer. The history of late Edo Japan has its share of people like this, so tonight, let’s talk about Ogata Kōan, a famous Osaka based doctor and polymath.

Detail of a 1901 painting of Ogata Kōan.

Born in Ashimori (in modern day Okayama Prefecture), he was born into the samurai caste, but chose to focus his efforts on scholarship and medicine, especially Dutch medicine. Studying during the 1830s first in Edo with Japanese teachers and then in Nagasaki with a visiting Dutch physician, by 1838 he began his own career as a teacher. Ogata set up his school, Tekijuku 適塾, in Osaka.

Osaka, then as now, was one of Japan’s major cities, and was also a city under the direct control of the Tokugawa Shogunate. This was not the Shogun’s capital, but it was the nearest thing in western Japan, and the myriad feudal domains of Japan maintained some measure of presence there. A primary reason for this was that this was one of the main centers of rice brokers in Japan. Why does this matter? Because the wealth of feudal domains was measured primarily in their agricultural output in rice, but you can’t buy necessities with rice and nothing else, and a bale of rice is a pain in the ass to make change out of, don’t you think? So, the feudal domains would bring their rice to Osaka, and exchange it for paper bills. Osaka brokers significantly grew their own political power this way, too– so much so that Masuya Heiemon (Masuhei for short), the broker with whom the Date of Sendai domain were contracted, once bragged “Masuhei is Sendai!”
This meant that Osaka was a major transportation hub and a place where many people from very different places and statuses of origin had a chance of crossing paths amidst the pursuit of official or mercantile business. So it was a good place for Ogata to set up his school. And this choice of location at the crossroads of so many people from so many domains is exactly why even though his school might not necessarily be a household name, many of his students went on to very prominent roles in the fields of military leadership, government, education, literature, and more.

Some of Tekijuku’s most notable alumni include Sano Tsunetami, Ōmura Masujirō, Fukuzawa Yūkichi, Hashimoto Sanai, Ōtori Keisuke, Nagayo Sensai, Tezuka Ryōsen, Mitsukuri Shūhei, Takamatsu Ryōun, and many others. Several of these names are people who have appeared in earlier weeks’ installments of Friday Night History. We’ve heard about Sano for the past few weeks because he went on to be a key leader in the Saga domain under the leadership of Nabeshima Naomasa, in which role he later met Samuel Pellman Boyer, the topic of last week’s post. Otori Keisuke was a Shogunate Army general and later a diplomat in the Meiji government. Takamatsu Ryōun was a key figure in the founding of the Japan Red Cross. Fukuzawa Yūkichi was a journalist, entrepreneur, and educator who founded Keio University. Tezuka Ryōsen in particular is the ancestor of legendary mangaka Tezuka Osamu, whose manga about his ancestor’s life, Hidamari no Ki included scenes in the Ogata school.

I encourage you to look up each of these names and see what you can find out abut them on your own. All told, quite a lot of important people in the development of Japan from the 1850s onward.
Tekijuku’s focus was Dutch studies– Ogata was a doctor, after all. But Dutch studies encompassed more than medicine, and there was a range of topics in what we’d now call STEM that were all taught there, along with instruction on the Dutch language itself, for many of the books from which Ogata taught were not translated. Not everyone who went to Tekijuku became a doctor, but the education available at Tekijiku became instrumental in setting Ogata’s students up for later success. But learning about that shared educational experience, in what was a very small private school, can help us appreciate how he, like Osaka itself, connected people.

Ogata Kōan’s work extended beyond instruction, of course. He was still a practicing doctor, and some of his fame to this day is also in his work on inoculations against smallpox. Again, we’ve covered this in prior weeks– Nabeshima Naomasa and Ogata Kōan’s circles had significant overlap for many years. He was also a translator of Dutch works into Japanese, and an author of original works including the first Japanese book on pathology, Byōgaku Tsūron. If you’re able to read kanbun, the National Diet Library has a scanned copy here: https://dl.ndl.go.jp/info:ndljp/pid/995413 Near the end of his life, he even became an official physician to Tokugawa Iemochi, 14th shogun, as well as serving as official physician of the Shogunate Army’s infantry barracks in Edo. Ogata’s career was cut short upon his death from tuberculosis in 1863, but his impact on Japan, through his students, continued for many decades.

Tekijuku as it stands today.

Oh, and the old building of Tekijuku, the Ogata school, is still in Osaka today. But the school grew into something much bigger: it is a forerunner of today’s Osaka University, which maintains an archive of documents and other materials pertaining to Tekijuku: https://www.tekijuku.osaka-u.ac.jp/ja

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

Now– questions?


  • Fukuzawa Yukichi. The Autobiography of Yukichi Fukuzawa. Translated by Eiichi Kiyooka. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1966).
  • Ann Bowman Jannetta. The Vaccinators: Smallpox, Medical Knowledge, and the ‘Opening’ of Japan. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2007).
  • “Koan Ogata 1901.” https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Koan_Ogata_1901.jpg Accecssed 17 December 2020.
  • Marius Jansen. Sakamoto Ryoma in the Meiji Restoration. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994) p. 18. 
  • Miyagi Kenshi Vol. 2 (Sendai: Hōbundō, 1966), p. 674.
  • Miyoshi Masao. As We Saw Them. Philadelphia: Paul Dry Books, 2005.
  • “Shozo Shiryo no Shokai” 所蔵資料の紹介 Osaka Daigaku Tekijuku Kinen Sentaa https://www.tekijuku.osaka-u.ac.jp/ja/center/introduction Accessed 17 December 2020
  • “Tekijuku no Gaikan” 適塾の外観 https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tekijuku_06.jpg Accessed 17 December 2020

(Friday Night History) The Long and Surprising Afterlife of Edo Period Robots

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So there’s this word automata, or in singular, automaton: “a mechanism that is relatively self-operating,” says Merriam-Webster. Not the computerized robots of today, but can the word “robot” be applied? Yes. The equivalent term in Japanese is karakuri ningyō. Karakuri is an old term that refers to a mechanism, especially involving pneumatics or clockwork, while ningyō is the word for puppet. Robots are ubiquitous in industry today, including in Japan, but these karakuri ningyō were some of the earliest of Japanese robots.

Tanaka Hisashige, born in Kurume on the island of Kyushu in 1799, was one of the foremost builders of karakuri ningyō in the late Edo period. Kurume was a castle town, the capital of the eponymous Kurume domain, ruled by the house of Arima. Bear in mind that Hisashige wasn’t the inventor of this type of automata, but merely one of its greatest engineers before the modern era. Why am I telling you this? Because it’s more relevant than you might think it is, to something you might take for granted as (for lack of a better term) “brand name background noise,” part of life in the modern world. Edo period robots have a long and surprising afterlife.

Hisashige in old age

Hisashige’s family were artisans, whose hereditary trade was in tortoiseshell craftsmanship, but he himself was more interested in the karakuri ningyō he saw in places like shrine festivals, and by his 20s, was making his own. Moving to the Kyoto-Osaka area in the 1830s (first to Osaka and then to Kyoto) he studied Dutch studies, as well as astronomy under the courtly Tsuchimikado family, who ran the court’s Ministry of Divination. Throughout this time, he constantly sought to improve his technical skill and broaden his scientific knowledge, and put these to work in technological innovation. Far from just working in automata, Hisashige was also the builder of clocks, compact lanterns, and even Japan’s first steam-engine train in 1853. But in the wake of the Perry mission of 1853-1854, there was a rising tide of violent xenophobia, and so Sano Tsunetami, vassal to Nabeshima Naomasa of Saga domain, invited Hisashige relocate to Saga for safety, and to come work for his lord, who was a proponent of western military and other technologies. Interestingly, considering this, Nabeshima Naomasa was later also one of the first feudal lords to pursue and accept western-style medical intervention, being treated by the US Navy doctor Samuel Pellman Boyer, who was also therefore the first American to enter Kyoto, visiting Naomasa in the latter’s official estate in Kyoto. But that visit and treatment wasn’t for several further years, so let’s stay on task with Hisashige and the invitation to come apply his broad technical and scientific learning in service to the forward-thinking house of Nabeshima. 

A depiction of Ryofu-maru underway.

While in Saga service, Hisashige attended the Shogunate Naval Academy at Dejima, in nearby Nagasaki. The academy was shuttered and relocated following a realignment of Shogunate priorities in 1859, but the learning acquired at the academy from mostly Dutch and some American instructors (including the famed John M. Brooke, later famous for his role in the construction of CSS Virginia) would stand Saga domain in general and Tanaka Hisashige in particular, in good stead. As the major domain in the area, some of the academy’s assets were sold or otherwise handed over to Saga control when the shogunate moved its naval education to Tsukiji, in Edo.

After the academy’s closure, Hisashige worked at the Saga domain’s shipyard at Naval Station Mietsu (in modern-day Saga City). One of the station’s most notable ships was Ryōfu-maru, whose keel was laid in 1863 and which was completed in 1865. It wasn’t the first western-style warship in Japanese service, nor was it the first steamship in Japanese service, but it was one of the first Japanese-built steam warships. The rivets used in its construction were a small but important advancement in Japanese technological capability, and some are still unearthed on the site of the old shipyard.

Hisashige also had a hand in casting cutting-edge cannons for Saga domain. Saga put this technological edge in naval power and artillery to practical use several years later, when its troops were part of the imperial forces during the Boshin War of 1868-1869. Saga artillery batteries rather notably saw action against the forces of the Northern Alliance, including at the siege of Aizu late that autumn.

Period photo of a Saga domain artillery piece used during the Boshin War.

Moving to Tokyo– now the imperial capital– in 1871, Hisashige founded a company in 1875 to continue work on technological innovation, especially in producing and refining telegraph instruments. He  died in 1881 in Tokyo, and his adopted son Tanaka Daikichi– who changed his name to Tanaka Hisashige II– took over the family business. The younger Hisashige would move the company’s facility to Shibaura to a 10,000 square meter site in 1882. Shibaura is part of present-day Minato, Tokyo.

But like I said at the beginning of our story this week, independent of steam warships or automata, there’s a part of this story that may surprise you, something that’s a part of the background of life in the 21st century.

Hisashige’s company, after a later merger with Tokyo Electric, still exists.

With the “To” from one and the “Shiba” from the other combined, it’s called Toshiba.

I’m Nyri and this has been #FridayNightHistory.

Now, questions?


(Friday Night History) The Moustache of Destiny

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!


They’re a variant of sideburns, and one of the quintessential forms of 19th century masculine facial hair grooming. Most famously worn by people like General Ambrose Burnside (from whom comes the term “sideburns”), they remain very visually distinctive. They used to be very common in some places, alongside facial hair in general– for example, in the 19th century US Navy, it was more uncommon to see naval officers without facial hair. After the Boshin War (1868-1869) and the birth of the modern Imperial Japanese Army and Navy, this sort of splendiferous facial hair also spread in popularity among officers, who had studied alongside Prussians, French, and Americans who sported similar grooming styles.

Muttonchops usually had limits.

Which brings me to this man.

Nagaoka Gaishi (1858-1933) isn’t exactly one of the best known Japanese military figures of the last 150 years.  Born in 1858 in Choshu domain, one of the victorious clans of the Boshin War, he was well positioned to take advantage of the prosperity and success enjoyed by former Choshu clansmen in the Imperial Army after the war. He saw service in the First Sino-Japanese War at the battlefront and as Vice Chief of the Imperial General Staff during the Russo-Japanese War. He was also commander of a couple of infantry divisions over the course of his career, most notably the 13th, based in Niigata on the Sea of Japan coast.  After ending active service and transferring to reserve status, he also served a stint in the House of Representatives, and was ennobled as a count  (hakushaku). Nagaoka died in April 1933.

Okay, so what’s the deal with the Muttonchops of Destiny here?

Nagaoka might be termed the father of Japanese aviation, particularly military aviation. He was a senior Army officer when airplanes were brand new, and after seeing their application in war during the First World War, understood their importance to the future of military operations. He headed the Imperial Aviation Association, was active as judge in early Japanese aviation competitions, spent time in Europe taking notes on military aircraft and aviation from British and French pilots, oversaw the reception of foreign aviators like the American pilot Art Smith (pictured below), and even offered his own residence as a temporary office for the Tokyo-Osaka airmail service following the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923.

As a proponent of a very new technology and a highly visible public figure involved in them, Nagaoka also sought to spread the word as broadly as possible. Part of this involved writing books and pamphlets meant to spread the word about aviation. Some of them can be found in digitized form in the National Diet Library’s collection. The 1918 Nihon Hikō Seisaku (Japanese Aviation Policy) https://dl.ndl.go.jp/info:ndljp/pid/924020 and the 1923 Hikōki to Teitō Fukkō (Aircraft and the Imperial Capital’s Revitalization)  https://dl.ndl.go.jp/info:ndljp/pid/922671 were written as arguments for national- and capital-level policy and public planning as related to aviation, while the richly illustrated 1928 Hikōki no Hanashi (A Story About Aircraft) can be found here:  https://dl.ndl.go.jp/info:ndljp/pid/1717318 was written for school-aged readers. But there was a much more practical way he could spread the word about aviation: he grew out his muttonchops, already long during later days of his Army career, in the shape of a propeller. According to a website run by his descendants, Nagaoka’s moustache was 70cm at its longest!

I mean really. I think this is a case of “message received,” don’t you:

Nagaoka and his muttonchops are commemorated in a bronze bust in Joetsu, Niigata, on the site of the old 13th Division commander’s residence.

I’m Nyri and this has been #FridayNightHistory.

Now– questions?


(Friday Night History) The Shove Heard ‘Round the World, Part 2

This is “The Shove Heard ‘Round the World,” Part 2 of an extarordinary story (here’s part 1) of an American naval officer who thought he could “wing it” in international diplomacy with isolationist Japan. Last week, in the summer of 1846, having scored an unequal treaty with China, and hearing of the outbreak of war with Mexico, Commodore James 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?

Well, no.

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

Here’s the thing: Japan was no stranger to the increasing presence of international ships in its waters, especially whalers. With the development and expansion of steam vessels, this only increased: Dutch, French, British, Russian, and American vessels all wound up in Japanese waters with increasing frequency. The isolation policy hadn’t fundamentally changed since the 17th century, although there had been some relaxing of restrictions pertaining to the import of European books. Even if they came from the countries whose entry into Japan was barred, the knowledge within was still of use. This became the backbone of what was called rangaku, Dutch studies– although despite the name, “Dutch Studies” could refer to the study of any European language, technology, medicine, or discipline.

All the same, by the early to mid 19th century, the ships weren’t going away, and there were a range of opinions as to how to deal with them. Some, like the powerful Mito domain of eastern Japan, advocated for the armed repulsion of any foreign vessel on sight. Others, like the Ōtsuki family– powerful scholars and doctors serving the house of Date in northern Japan– argued for a limited opening of Japan to foreign trade, particularly in the north, with an eye toward better understanding Russia. Indeed, eventually, Sendai under the house of Date became the first clan in Japan to include a Russian studies curriculum in its domain school, the school where its samurai were trained.

Commodore James Biddle. Image in PD.

So with all of this understood, what it boils down to is that foreign vessels, foreign ideas, foreign weapons of the 1840s were not strange otherworldy magical things to Japan. And this informed how the Shogunate responded, shortly after Biddle’s little flotilla– the warships Columbus and Vincennes– arrived at Uraga, at the entrance of what’s now Tokyo Bay, on 20 July 1846.
And by “shortly,” I mean they saw these ships coming, and there was an officer who came aboard before the American warships even reached their anchorage.

As Biddle reported to SECNAV Bancroft:

“Before reaching the anchorage an officer, with a Dutch interpreter, came on board. He inquired what was my object in coming to Japan. I answered that I came as a friend, to ascertain whether Japan had, like China, opened her ports to foreign trade and, if she had, to fix by treaty the conditions on which American vessels should trade with Japan. He requested me to commit this answer to writing, and I gave him a written paper, a copy of which is herewith transmitted. He informed me that any supplies I might require would be furnished by the Government. To my inquiry whether I would be allowed to go on shore, he replied in the negative. He objected to our boats passing between this ship and the Vincennes; but, as I insisted upon it, he yielded.”

Quite the entrance.

The week that followed saw the American sailors receiving Japanese visitors aboard both vessels. Both crews took soundings of the waters around their anchorage, and passed unrestricted from one ship to the other, but were shadowed by Shogunate patrol craft that kept a tight cordon, as well as troops of Oshi and Kawagoe domains, which kept watch from the adjoining shoreline.

Both Biddle’s official report and Charles Nordhoff’s later memoir note that quite a few Japanese regularly visited the two American warships, and that the interactions were on the whole, amicable. Shogunate officials also regularly visited, continuing discussions with Biddle while the latter’s letter traveled up Shogunate channels; despite their firm refusal to let the Americans actually land, they were amenable to supplying the ships with fresh water and other needed provisions.

On the 27th, an answer finally arrived from what Biddle calls “the Emperor,” but was in fact the Shogun. The emissary came with an entourage of eight people including an interpreter. Initially, he wanted them to come aboard, but eventually agreed to come aboard the Shogunate vessel that had drawn up alongside Columbus. But on trying to board, one of the guards on the Japanese vessel misinterpreted Biddle’s intentions, and shoved him back into the Columbus’ launch , drawing his own sword.

A short, sharp crisis ensued. Biddle returned to Columbus, calling for the man to be punished. Japanese officials followed, working out the nature of the misunderstanding and how to punish the man who’d drawn his sword. Ultimately, the problem at its root was exacerbated by neither side having a language in common other than a mutually tenuous grasp of Dutch. With this in mind, Ranald MacDonald’s work in English language instruction had an outsized influence in smoothing future US-Japanese diplomatic interactions.

The shove aside, the Shogunate’s message (as quoted by Biddle) was this:

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

Chastened, Biddle told the Shogunate officials that having ascertained that Japan was not interested in trade, he would withdraw as soon as he could make sail. So, having taken on fresh provisions, and with a tow from Japanese rowboats, the flotilla sailed from Edo Bay on the 29th. Charles Nordhoff recollects that

“Accordingly the anchor was weighed, the sails set, and two long hawsers passed over the bows to the waiting boatmen, who, fastening to these, and to each others’ craft when the hawsers would no longer reach them, soon towed us to the entrance of the bay, when, taking the breeze, the boats cast off, and, amid waving of fans and hats, we bade good-by to Japan.”

Vincennes remained on station in East Asia with Columbus, with Biddle aboard, headed east to join the war. There was no treaty, but there were plenty of reports, first of which was Biddle’s official account sent to Secretary of the Navy Bancroft is dated 31 July. Accounts of this abortive, slapdash attempt at gunboat diplomacy that ended with a shove would influence later US attempts: I talked recently about James Glynn’s 1849 mission to Japan, and the 1853 mission of Matthew C. Perry is renowned worldwide, for better and worse. Both men benefited from the unlikely influenece of Ranald MacDonald, and both were aware of the events of the Biddle mission, seeking to scrupulously avoid the same mistakes (neither commander let himself be in a position where he could get shoved), and especially by use of increasing amounts of naval firepower to compel compliance.

USS Vincennes and an American officer as depicted by a Japanese artist. Image in PD.

But Biddle’s visit had an impact in Japan, too, in ways he likely didn’t anticipate. And for that, you’ll have to wait until next week’s episode.

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

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) 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)

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!

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 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

Shrines of Northern Japan 東北神社巡り

Once upon a time, I did a series of posts on Tumblr that profiled Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples in Japan: their locales, their enshrined deities, and some of their lore. It got a lot of traffic: the masterpost that indexed them has 346 notes as of 29 March 2019, the original post went up in 2015. So it’s gotten some positive feedback and support, but along with much else, it had to go on hold between finishing grad school and getting after job hunting. Since then, I’ve developed new interests– and it seems to me that one of them is particularly suited to this project!

Roadsigns near Saeno-jinja in Natori, Miyagi Prefecture. As posted on my Instagram.

It seems like things are coming into order, with my recent employment, so it’s at last time to revisit this– the art and the shrine profiles together, because these things seem made for each other.

It’s going to be a little different, this time, though.

  • I’m going to focus on northeastern Japan first, in order to keep to my most ready pool of source material. I have less access to an academic library now that I’m no longer a graduate student, but I have periodic access, so I need to plan better. Since I have my own personal library– and a range of digitized sources– which focus on the northeast, I’m going to start there. As I build both my experience, my source access, and my income, I’ll build out from there in terms of geographic coverage. For the purposes of this series, I’m defining the northeast as the Tohoku region– meaning, Fukushima, Miyagi, Iwate, Aomori, Akita, and Yamagata.
  • Unlike the original series, I’ll just be focusing on shrines rather than including Buddhist temples. There’ll be some overlap, though, because of shinbutsu-shugo, and how the line between the two used to be blurred.
  • There’ll be new (or extra) material included in the new version! Aside from the drawings, I’m also going to make a point of including maps and more expansive reference lists. Addresses are fine, yes, but a point on a map is better– especially if you happen to be in the neighborhood and are trying to get there.

What’s my schedule right now? I’m hoping to get the first profile live and posted sometime in mid-April. It’ll be on one of the shrines from before, but revised and expanded.

That’ll be something to look forward to for your mid-April. Meanwhile watch this space! And remember: sign up to my Patreon at http://www.shiogamawaves.com to support this and the rest of my content– and for early access and bonus material!

Shiogama Shrine (Shiogama, Miyagi Prefecture) in spring. Image in the public domain.