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.
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.
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?
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
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!
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 ), pp. 81-85
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!
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!