Friday, May 29, 2015

The Rambunctious Millet Grubbers and Dirt Farmers of the Edo Period

When one thinks about the common people of the Edo period, they probably think of a group of passive, law abiding, hard working farmers and textile producers.  In fact, commoners of the Edo period were rowdier than you might imagine - there were literally THOUSANDS of peasant uprisings and disputes over the course of the Edo period.  This often happened during times of famine, crop failure, or political turmoil, but wasn't limited to it.  Pretty much anything that impinged on a peasant's daily life, livelihood, or long term survival might be enough to set them off.  Peasants tended to live "paycheck to paycheck" - Tokugawa Ieyasu's philosophy of taxation was to "tax the peasants to the extent that they don't die, but can't live".  It was control of the masses by enforced poverty.  Not a strategy unknown in the modern world. Anytime this got out of balance and people were forced to worry about how to feed their families, trouble was surely soon to follow.

In reality, peasants in Edo period Japan probably had it better than peasants in other feudal cultures.  During the Edo period, the Samurai lived in the cities separated from the common folk, and so the peasants really had no contact with their absentee overlords, and therefore didn't feel so much like oppressed subjects of the Tokugawa regime.  Generally speaking, as long as they obeyed the rules and paid their taxes on time and in the amounts specified, they were left completely alone.  Villages were self-run, with headmen appointed (or depending on the area, hereditary) and networked with surrounding villages;  they were very well connected and organized at the local level.  Local villages relied on each other for support during lean years, or as local markets for goods and services.  This level of local organization actually lent itself quite well to mass protest.  For villages that were tightly organized, a protest or petition was a simple thing to throw together.

Organized protests were "illegal", but there were prescribed measures for registering protest - the ability to petition one's lord.  The Tokugawa government was generally fair, and subscribed to Confucian values, and so tended to treat the peasantry as their "children".  And so the peasants, for their part, paid the taxes and obeyed the laws in return for the benevolence granted to them by the lord.  Although petitioning was an acceptable form of protest, improperly worded petitions were illegal and grounds for execution.  The required form of petition usually went along the lines of asking for assistance from the benevolent lord in order that the petitioner may "continue to live as a farmer".  Demands and complaints were patently illegal.

The first line of petitions/protests fell on the local representative, who decided right then and there if the petition was valid and if it would be passed on to the local lord. If it didn't make the cut, peasants were for all intents and purposes SOL when it came to legal recourse.  We'll get to the illegal kind in  a second, but if the petition was accepted, it would be looked over by the lord, or more likely first line of bureaucrats, and granted or not.  Often it involved pleas to lower taxes during times of famine or crop failure, or requests to not be liable for transporting taxes all the way to Edo, or requests to pay taxes "in kind", i.e. if you're a silk producer, being allowed to pay taxes in silk, rather than have to convert it to rice first. Things of that nature.  For the most part it seems that requests for temporary reduction of taxes would be granted - because, if you tax your tax base to the extent that they can't feed their families, you were asking for trouble - at best they might flee your domain, leaving untended farm plots that couldn't be farmed, and therefore taxed.  At worst you might find yourself with petitioners going over your head to the Bakufu (which reflected more poorly on the local lord than the peasants) or armed uprising.

On the one hand, going over the lord's head was a suicide mission, as the Japanese were sticklers for convention - and often the leaders were executed - but on the other hand, this was often effective in the long run. On more than one occasion, Samurai lords were dispossessed of their lands due to chronic maltreatment of their peasantry and replaced with more lenient benefactors.  In fact, protests were surprisingly successful, as peasants rarely protested without good reason.  If they were able to eat and able to support their families despite the taxes they were paying, things were good.  They were essentially self-governed, and so unless things really became dire for them, there really was no impetus for mass protest.

When things really hit the fan, and things got so bad and peasants got so fed up, but domain leadership was being unresponsive, protests were inevitable.  They were more often than not led by upper class respected commoners, and consisted of all the area villages.  Village headsmen declined to participate at their own risk, as they themselves might find their own property and livelihood the target of peasant rage.  Things rarely got violent, however there are many examples of peasants destroying the homes of merchants, moneylenders, and landlords in what in basic terms was a targeted redistribution of wealth.  They were often engineered to take back lands taken by debt, or to return pawned goods to the rightful owners.  Often these changes would stick.  In most cases, when push came to shove, the local lords would side with the peasants for utilitarian reasons.  Lords didn't necessarily get a cut of profit from money lenders or pawn brokers, and so had no financial incentive to side with them, but had all the reason to side with the people that paid them taxes.

When the local lords were the problem, things got more complicated.

Going over the heads of local domain leadership was forbidden, but sometimes the only option for peasants at the end of their collective ropes.  And the leadership of the rebellion was also almost guaranteed to be executed.  Despite this, peasants were willing to protest directly to the Bakufu, and did so when necessary.  As mentioned before, the Bakufu nearly always sided with the peasants, although not before executing the leaders and pretending that the changes they enacted had nothing to do with the protest in the first place.  Also as mentioned, often peasants protesting directly to the Bakufu could result in the lord of the local domain being given the boot - the Bakufu liked order, and liked receiving taxes, and felt that a lord who is such a poor administrator that his peasants are rebelling is obviously just plain bad at his job.  So it was always in the best interest from both a Confucian, and utilitarian point of view to treat his subjects fairly.  Despite the peril that a local lord might be put in with peasant rebellions, the immediate intent of these rebellions was almost never regime change, and was almost exclusively based on far more pragmatic needs, mainly the lowering of taxes so that the peasants don't starve or are forced to flee the region to find a better place to live.

Plenty of information about the rebelliousness of the Edo period can be found in Stephen Vlastos' book Peasant Protests and Uprisings in Tokugawa Japan as well as the discussion thread for this book on the Samurai Archives Japanese History Forum.

Thursday, January 01, 2015

The 47 Rōnin: Re-opening the Fruit Cellar Door



"Ōishi Kuranosuke" leads the pack of Akō rōnin into Sengaku-ji.
I went to the 47 Rōnin Festival at Sengaku-ji temple on December 14, commemorating the 312th anniversary of the famous 'revenge' attack by a group of masterless samurai on the residence of Kira Yoshihisa (more commonly and erroneously known as Yoshinaka), the man they felt was responsible for their lord, Asano Naganori's death. After taking Kira's head, they brought it to Asano's grave, located in Sengaku-ji's cemetery. This created quite a controversy at the time, and while most of the population may have wanted the rōnin to be pardoned for their actions, the shogunate really had no choice but to order their deaths for their violent transgression of  the law.  But instead of being executed like common criminals, the rōnin were allowed to keep their honor by being granted the right to death by ritual seppuku suicide (or so we are lead to believe-- some historians have recently started to believe that this was a ruse concocted by the shogunate to appease public opinion and none of the rōnin were allowed the privilege to slit their bellies).

Anyway, people who know me and my views on this bump in the relative peaceful history of the mid-Edo Period, know that I am not a fan of the leader of this rōnin hit squad, Ōishi Kuranosuke, and I challenge the motives of what the group really wanted to accomplish through their 'feudal drive-by'. Popular myth, as first spread by bunraku puppet and kabuki plays, say the rōnin took their revenge out of a deep sense of 忠孝 (chūkō) or  忠義 (chūgi) to justify their actions. These are two words for 'loyalty' that are often associated with the loyal 47 rōnin story, and regardless of real history, the Japanese love the fictional account of  the incident. But why?


There goes Kira's head
Is it just good drama and action?  Japanese, who know almost nothing of their history , all know this tale. Why? Why is it this way?  I have even seen a kabuki theater full of people start sniffling and crying when the Ōishi gives his emotional farewell speech to his men. I have heard the same sniffling in movie theaters, and even seen and heard it in my own household when any one of the seemingly endless supply of  47 rōnin movies or dramas airs on TV. Again, why?

It used to annoy me. It really did. I just didn't understand why people don't challenge the myth and take a look at the hard facts surrounding the incident. Was this just another, older example of Japanese white-washing their history to glorify something that really shouldn't be glorified?  I really have wondered and struggled with this. But as I stood within the precincts of Sengaku-ji, a lone non-believer adrift in a sea of Kool-Aid drinkers and listening to the cacophony of  'rōnin-talk', I think I finally understand "why".


All they wanted were new jobs and stipends- probably not
undying popularity
As Japan stumbles through the second decade of the 21st century and ties to the past and traditional values  weaken, 忠孝 (chūkō) and 忠義 (chūgi) are still to varying degrees, hardwired into the culture of Japan. This has allowed the  47 loyal rōnin story to imbed itself into the cultural DNA sequence over a 300 hundred year period, and this is why the myth and love of the 47 rōnin endures, regardless of what their true intentions were.

And, when the attack on Kira's mansion began, I can almost certainly guarantee  that the rōnin were not counting on achieving immortality and becoming the embodiment of  忠孝 (chūkō) and 忠義 (chūgi) within Japanese culture, that's for sure.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

The Evil Book Redeemed: Alexander Bennett's Translation Of The Hagakure

For years, the Hagakure (along with its spiritual cousin, "Bushido: The Soul of Japan") has been the bane of the Samurai Archives. Often taken by neophytes to the study of Japanese history as the 'official training manual of samurai down through time', it has been the indirect cause of much buffoonery and has left a trail of misconceptions in its wake. Many 'modern sammyrai' claiming to follow its tenets turn out to have never read the book at all, instead quoting heavily from sensationalistic (and often out-of-context) passages reprinted ad nauseam by pop culture books-the most notorious being the mantra "The Way of the Samurai is Found in Death". Recently we were given the opportunity to look at Tuttle Publishing's new translation: "Hagakure, The Secret Wisdom of the Samurai" by Alexander Bennett, a Ph.D currently teaching Japanese history and society as an Associate Professor at Kansai University. Bennett is also a proficient martial artist (among other things, Vice President of the International Naginata Federation and Editor of "Kendo World" magazine). That's an interesting and rarely seen blend of scholarship and practical experience with traditional Japanese martial arts, with perhaps Karl Friday being the only other prominent example-and not coincidentally, Friday highly recommended the book. This recommendation, along with Bennett's background, was enough to convince us that it was finally time to face the Evil Book head-on and see if it deserved the reputation (either good or bad) that it has acquired over the years. 

Before we examine Bennett's translation, it would be helpful to give some background on the authors of the original text. As Bennett explains, Yamamoto Tsunetomo was born in 1659 and was a retainer of the Saga domain in Kyushu ruled by the Nabeshima. While extremely feeble and sickly as a boy, through hard work and determination he managed to overcome his frail constitution. At the age of 14 he was made a page of the Lord at the time (Nabeshima Mitsushige) but was dismissed from service for being complicit in the Lord's son's fixation with poetry. Using this time to educate himself in matters of Buddhism and Confucianism, he was reemployed by the domain at age 24. His 'greatest exploit' came in 1700 when he managed to locate and procure an extremely rare text (the 'Kokin-denju', a commentary on a renowned book of poetry) after an extensive search and raced back to Saga just in time to deliver it to his Lord before his passing. When Mitsushige died, Tsunetomo wished to follow him in death (known as 'junshi') as was sometimes done in previous eras; however, both his domain and the Tokugawa government had passed laws forbidding this. Instead, he took up the tonsure, taking the Buddhist name Jocho and retired to Kurotsuchibaru. It was here that he was sought out by a younger Nabeshima clansman named Tashiro Tsuramoto. Tsuramoto had been relieved of duty in 1709 and in 1710 began to visit Jocho for counsel. In 1716, he compiled the conversations with Jocho into the first copy of the Hagakure. While there have been several different variants of the Hagakure published through the year, Bennett has chosen the Kohaku version as it is generally considered to be the one closest to the lost original. His translation covers the entirety of the the first two books (the first time this has been done in English), the ones that were filled exclusively with Jocho's material. A third chapter covers selections from books 3-11, which contained material Tsuramoto gathered from other sources as well as vignettes possibly from Jocho. Each chapter has extensive footnotes which provide a wealth of cultural and explanatory material. 

By far, the most impressive part of the book for us was Bennett's introductory chapter-"Hagakure in Context". It puts the Hagakure into its proper historical and social setting as well as examining 'bushido' (interestingly, Bennett notes that the term 'bushido' first appeared in the 'Koyo Gunkan', a treatise on Takeda Shingen written by a former retainer) with a critical eye and a look at how Jocho's life experiences and psychology is reflected in the work-and does so elegantly and brilliantly. This translation is well worth picking up just on the strength of this chapter. From the somewhat vague symbolism of the title (is Hagakure-literally 'hidden by leaves'-a reference to a poem by Buddhist scholar Saigyo Hoshi? Perhaps just a simple reference to the hermitage where the meetings between Jocho and Tsuramoto took place? Or a reference to one of the book's recurring themes, serving from behind the scenes?) to the appropriation of the book for various agendas by both 20th century Japanese and Westerners, Bennett examines the book from a variety of angles. Bennett states that the book is vastly misunderstood both inside and outside Japan, and perhaps that is why Jocho encouraged Tsuramoto to burn it upon completion (to prevent it from being read by those who could never understand the spirit in which it was written). 

Bennett shows how Jocho was bitter at the "disintegration of warrior norms over previous decades", "anti-Shogunate sentiment", had a nostalgic longing for the previous regimes and decried how young samurai "talk of money, about profit and loss, their household financial problems, taste in fashion, and idle chatter of sex". At one point in the book, Jocho flatly states that there are "no good men". However, Bennett also shows how Jocho realized that the nature of service had changed in the time of peace and a good retainer had to change as well. This passion for the older days mixed with Jocho's call for a new type of service based on loyalty and dedication to duty rather than martial valor resulted in many apparent contradictions within the book, including some of its most famous passages. Should a vassal rush headlong into danger, or should he seek a more peaceful alternative? Does one persistently correct the Lord and let him know when he is wrong, or does one carry out the letter of his commands unquestioningly? You should always follow out the Lord's commands, except when you don't. While mastering an art is detrimental to the way of the samurai, when can its study actually be beneficial? There are passages that seem to exhort the virtues of each. Bennett demonstrates how many of these can be explained away by Jocho's splitting one's service as a youth and as an adult-as well as how one's position inside the hierarchy of the samurai chain of command affected one's actions. Indeed, it shows how the Hagakure was an excellent microcosm of the identity crisis of Edo period samurai-how to keep the virtues of a warrior society alive in a time where they were no longer used? This is perhaps best shown in Jocho's criticism of the Ako Ronin, a group that itself exemplified how martial values no longer fit into Edo society. 

As interesting as Hagakure's contemporary setting was, Bennett's examination of how it emerged into the world of the 20th century with its first out-of-domain printing in 1906 (contrary to popular belief, it was virtually unknown outside of a select few in Saga domain before then) is even more so. Does Hagakure represent a 'mystical beauty intrinsic to the Japanese aesthetic experience', or is it a 'text that epitomizes all that is abhorrent in terms of mindless sacrifice, as well as a loathsome depreciation of the value of life and blind obedience to authority'? Invented tradition? A window into the complex ethics of the Tokugawa world? Or simply the 'seditious ramblings of a disgruntled curmudgeon'? 

A careful reading of Hagakure will reveal elements of all of these. But at its heart, Bennett believes it can be summed up by four simple oaths Jocho repeats throughout the text (none of which involve finding the way of the samurai in death): 

-Never lag behind others in the Way of the Warrior

-Be ready to be useful to one's Lord 

-Honor one's parents 

And the final one-a point which is noticeably absent from oft-reprinted quotes of the Hagakure, but which fills the book with its spirit: 

-Serve for the benefit of others with a heart of great compassion 

All precepts whose underpinning philosophy is as applicable to today as it was in 1710. 

What does Jocho see as the essence of being a samurai? According to Book 2/7, it to devotion in both body and soul to his Lord, along with the virtues of wisdom, benevolence, and courage. In other sections he outlines that devotion is the only way for a samurai of his times to be recognized since martial valor is no longer an option-an eminently practical attitude. Wisdom comes from listening to others. Benevolence is for the sake of others. And courage goes back to the 'found in death' idea (more on that later). Proper grooming, speech, and handwriting are also important. Again, all very practical concepts for finding success in the Edo period. 

Reading Hagakure reinforces much of the recent scholarship being done on samurai of the Edo period. For example, Luke Roberts's concepts of 'omote' and 'uchi'-basically 'surface' and 'beneath the surface'-is a common theme in Hagakure. Jocho stresses often that it is better to forgive the failings of others, especially social inferiors, even making excuses for them rather than criticize them harshly. In essence, while their failures are recognized ('uchi'), they are politely papered over and ignored ('omote'). This allows that person to retain their pride, forestall resentment, and encourage them to become better for next time. Avoiding conflict is stressed to be every bit as important as ending it swiftly when it does happen. 

That Jocho has a realistic view of the world is confirmed in Book 2/18: "Current trends cannot be stopped...any desire to return to the 'good old days' of a hundred years ago is futile. Accordingly, it is important to try and improve the ways of the present. It is for this reason that men who hold a nostalgic view of the past are misguided". He goes on to state that the customs and traditions of old should still be kept in mind in order to differentiate between core principles and minor details. While Jocho saw the value in remembering the past, he didn't seem to promote living there. 

Even the oft-quoted 'The Way of the Samurai is found in death' takes on a new meaning when read in its proper context. Bolied down to its core, it says to simply do your best in everything and approach every situation fearlessly as if it is your last day on earth-to not hold back out of a fear of dying or failing. It's not necessarily about rushing head-on alone into a nest of bandits determined to die a glorious death-although it COULD be, and forms the basis for Jocho's criticism of the 47 Ronin (that their calculating manner showed too much concern for their own safety rather than performing the task at hand). 

And aside from the cultural and historical aspects of Jocho's work (and the tales of others in books 3-11), the stories have a good deal of entertainment value-they're often charming and fun to read. You'll learn how a good samurai should always be able to perform at least one action after his head has been cut off-hey, wasn't Nitta Yoshisada able to bury his own body after being decapitated (more realistically, this is simply an exhortation to fight to one's dying breath)? Samurai grew mustaches to ensure a head taken was that of a man and not a woman-no slain samurai would want their head discarded, after all! 18 foot long giant snakes show up. Discussions of how to attack gaijin in Nagasaki harbor (in the wake of an unscheduled 1673 visit by English ships) are laid out in a detailed battle plan. Giving bodyguards progressively larger swords as a training tactic is examined. There's a tale of how a wily woman made herself sexually unattractive to even that horndog of note Toyotomi Hideyoshi. For more womanly hijinks, we read the saga of how a woman marched her man into battle after he had been beaten up by three farmers. Jocho even comments on his own situation, stating that everyone over 60 is senile (although he would have been around 50-55 at the time) and that applies to him. Drunken lords, seppuku, stupid samurai, liars, poseurs, harlots, and even Jocho's thoughts regarding Shudo (male homosexuality, usually between an older samurai and a younger charge-Jocho advocates "secret love", an internal burning love for another that is never revealed, thus allowing one to devote his energies to service) all make for good reading. They're also all short, usually just a paragraph or two, making this a good book to pick up and read passages at random or when you only have a few minutes. Again, the insights given by Jocho and others into what it was to be an Edo period samurai-along with a look at the culture and values of the day-are varied and extensive. 

Also available from Tuttle are recently republished versions of two Thomas Cleary books that likewise examine the thoughts of influential Edo period intellectuals and swordsmen on the changing roles of samurai and the ethics of a time of peace. While Cleary's historical notes for the collections are not as strong as Bennett's (in some cringe-worthy examples, he states Oda Nobunaga converted to Christianity and forced all his vassals to do the same and that Takeda Shingen never lost a battle), the translations he does are excellent. "Soul of the Samurai: Modern Translation of Three Classic Works of Zen & Bushido" collects Monk Takuan's (who we covered in an earlier article on the Shogun-ki) "The Inscrutable Subtlety of Immovable Wisdom" and "Tai-A-Ki: Notes on the Peerless Sword" along with daimyo/swordmaster Yagyu Munenori's "Martial Arts: The Book of Family Traditions". "Samurai Wisdom: Lessons from Japan's Warrior Culture" goes a step further with no less than five translated texts: Confucian scholar Yamaga Soko's "The Way of the Knight (Samurai)", "The Education of Warriors", and the "Primer of Martial Education", his son Takatsune's "Essentials of Military Matters" and Tsugaru Kodo-shi's (a grandson of Soko's) "The Warrior's Rule". These books provide a fascinating glimpse into the psyche of Edo period samurai and their struggles to retain the skills of war while remaining relevant in a time of peace, and they're also easily affordable. 

Now, as to using these books as a blueprint for one's own life in the modern world-while they do embody certain universal values and you can certainly learn from then, you'd be far better served (in our opinion) picking up a work that was written with modern values, culture, and mores than using something written for a centuries old culture. The samurai and monks who wrote these treatises certainly realized that living in the past was no solution and that they needed to adapt to the times-and perhaps that is the most valuable lesson to be learned from these works. 

Until recently we never thought that anything positive could come out of a study of the Hagakure, but Alexander Bennett's translation and historical acumen have changed all that. Put in its proper context, the book is an excellent tool for a look into what being an Edo period retainer was all about-from the high to the low, from the old to the young, and the changing roles assumed as one went through life. And Yamamoto's stories and anecdotes make for delightful reading on their own. The legendary Evil Book has been redeemed, and can now be appreciated for the insight it brings to the world of the warrior during the Edo period. 

The Hagakure is available through the SA Store via Amazon or directly through Tuttle Publishing.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Katsu Kaishu, Navigator Of Chaos: An Interview With Romulus Hillsborough, Author Of “Samurai Revolution”, Pt. 2

We’re happy to present our readers with the conclusion of our two-part interview with Romulus Hillsborough, author of the recently published Samurai Revolution: The Dawn of Modern Japan Seen Through the Eyes of the Shogun's Last Samurai. You can read part one of the interview HERE. In the following interview, RH is author Romulus Hillsborough and SA is the Samurai Archives’ Randy Schadel. 

SA: One of the more difficult concepts for newcomers to Bakumatsu studies to understand is why the new Imperial Government felt the need to use military force against the Tokugawa after Yoshinobu had resigned the office of Shogun and returned power to the Emperor in 1867. Satsuma and Choshu (in conjunction with some highly placed Court nobles) even went so far as to forge an Imperial edict to attack the Tokugawa and put together phony Imperial flags for the Satcho army. Was this simply a case of the Loyalists led by Satsuma and Choshu wanting to ensure that the Tokugawa would be eliminated from national politics beyond a shadow of a doubt? Or was there evidence that Yoshinobu still had plans to retain his primacy in the political arena? 

RH: Regarding this complicated issue, I refer readers to Samurai Revolution since I wrote quite a bit about it there. Let me just say here that the Imperial Court refused Yoshinobu’s request to abdicate and restore Imperial rule in the Tenth Month of Keio 3 (1867) because it wasn’t yet ready to accept the burden of governing; then after the coup in Kyoto in the next month, by which the Bakufu was abolished, Yoshinobu was deposed and a new provisional government was established under the Emperor, Yoshinobu no longer intended to step aside peacefully-which was why he sent 15,000 troops from Osaka to crush 5,000 enemy troops, mostly of Choshu and Satsuma. They clashed at Toba-Fushimi on the way to Kyoto and, of course, the Bakufu side was defeated. 

SA: Throughout Samurai Revolution you’re also quoting extensively from the accounts of foreign diplomats and officials, giving their contemporary viewpoint on the Bakumatsu. This gives a valuable outsider’s look at the proceedings and just what the ‘foreign devils’ responsible for much of the unrest thought of what was transpiring. Despite the fact that the English actively supported the Loyalists and the French the Shogunate (with the Dutch watching their own interests, the Russians chipping away at territories north of Japan, and the Americans largely staying out of things due to being involved in their own Civil War) when the actual fighting began in the Boshin War, the Western nations agreed to not become involved and remain neutral. What was it that kept the Western nations out of the conflict and perhaps spared Japan the fate that China suffered at the hands of the European and American powers? 

RH: I will not state the reasons that the foreign governments agreed to stay out of the internal conflict in Japan. However, I will say a little about France and Great Britain. Napoleon III, it seems, lost his stomach for overseas adventure, which was why the Bakufu lost France’s support in the latter part of Keio 3 (1867). Great Britain, on the other hand, wanted to secure its lucrative Japan trade, which was predicated on political stability in Japan. This was part of the reason that Ernest Satow published his essays, “English Policy,” in the Japan Times in 1865-66, in which he argued that the best means of assuring political stability in Japan was through a council of powerful feudal lords, including the shogun and his senior councilors, under the authority of the Emperor. Of course this resembles Sakamoto Ryoma’s great plan for the shogun’s abdication and restoration of Imperial rule, which he wrote down aboard ship in the summer of Keio 3 (1867). 

SA: The dramatic highlight of the book comes when your two central figures, Katsu Rintaro of the Shogunate and Saigo Takamori of the Imperialists, come together in early 1868 to save the city of Edo from destruction. While it is often assumed that Katsu was negotiating from a hopelessly weak position and threw the city’s fate on the mercy of the Imperial faction, it actually appears as if he had quite a bit to bargain with militarily-particularly the Tokugawa navy. There was also the fact that of all the Tokugawa vassals, he had the best relationship with the leaders of the Imperialists. Nonetheless, the negotiations were dicey with the behavior of extremists on both sides threatening to escalate the situation into all-out warfare. Through it all, Katsu continued to work towards ensuring Tokugawa Yoshinobu’s safety and the financial/political security of Tokugawa vassals. Had there not been such a strong preexisting bond between Katsu and Saigo (or had some other leaders headed up negotiations), was it likely that the city of Edo would have been destroyed-perhaps triggering an all-out civil war rather than the scattered fighting of the Boshin War? 

RH: The short answer is yes, I think so. Katsu Kaishu himself stated as much in his narrative, Kainanroku, which he wrote in 1884. And later in the 1890’s in an interview he said that had the Imperial Army sent anyone other than Saigo to speak with him, that person would have laid the blame for the dangerous situation on the Tokugawa, or on Yoshinobu, or on the troops who had fled the city, or on Kaishu himself, and “the talks would have broken down immediately.” However, like so many other things in history, nothing (or I should say, very little) is black and white. Consider this: Saigo had been forewarned by Sir Harry Parkes, the British minister to Japan (Satow’s boss), not to punish Yoshinobu or attack Edo, since the former shogun had already given up. “Killing the former leader of the nation, Parkes asserted, would violate international law. In the eyes of the rest of the world, as long as the Tokugawa agreed to surrender the castle, the Imperial Army lacked a moral justification to attack. Furthermore, Parkes warned, to launch an attack without first officially notifying the foreign representatives in Yokohama and safeguarding the lives and property of the foreign community smacked of anarchy.” (Samurai Revolution

SA: One of our favorite quotes from the book comes on page 522 courtesy of Saigo Takamori. In responding to a Satsuma man in the Meiji period who remarked that they would now be able to get rid of the foreigners, he states “Are you still talking about that? That was just an excuse to overthrow the Bakufu”. Among the higher-ups in actual positions of power among the various Loyalist han, do you believe that disenfranchising the Tokugawa was always the central goal and that Joi was only a means to garner support? 

RH: Originally, no-but after the summer of 1863, yes. Remember what occurred in Satsuma and Choshu that summer. Both of those han, leaders in the “expel the barbarians” movement, were punished by foreign warships in their own backyards – Satsuma by the British, and Choshu by American and French forces. After that they realized that Joi was impossible without first modernizing their militaries, for which they needed to trade with foreign nations. For further details, I refer readers to Samurai Revolution

SA: Saigo’s Rebellion (the Satsuma Rebellion/Seinan Sensou/Southwest Campaign of 1878) is usually seen as the last stand of the samurai, lashing out at the Meiji government for their loss in status and other assorted grievances. Saigo is often portrayed as aggressively spearheading the movement, most notably in works of pop culture like the film “The Last Samurai” (in the person of his cinematic ‘stand-in’, Katsumoto). But historically, it seems that Saigo ended up as the leader of the anti-Meiji forces almost by accident. Was he the reluctant leader he appears to have been, and if so, how did he end up in that position? 

RH: I wouldn’t say it was by accident but rather by circumstance. Saigo, after all, was probably the single most powerful driving force behind the revolution. And, as you will recall, he was hailed as a hero and natural leader by disgruntled samurai not only in Satsuma but throughout Japan. And, as I have explained in the book, Saigo was an extremely complex and enigmatic personality. Analyzing him is extremely difficult and sometimes he is impossible to understand. But as I write, he had “a genuine and reciprocated affection” for the Emperor. I quote Donald Keene that “absolutely nothing suggests that Saigo . . . had hoped another form of government might replace the monarchy,” based on his Confucian ethic that (in my own words) “the Emperor must rule according to Heaven’s will.” But he hated the corruption in the Meiji government. His ultimate objective in the Satsuma Rebellion (even if he did not actually start it) was, according to Keene, “to rid the emperor of the corrupt officials surrounding him so that he might rule undisturbed by their evil influence.” 

SA: The assassination of Sakamoto Ryoma in many ways is the Japanese version of the Kennedy assassination in America. While Shinsengumi chief Kondo Isami was unjustly executed for the crime and Imai Noburo of the Mimawarigumi later confessed to it, there are seemingly dozens of theories as to who the perpetrators were. A popular one is that it was agents of Satsuma or Choshu (Ryoma’s ostensible allies) who were concerned that Ryoma meant to work to include the Tokugawa in the new Imperial government or that Ryoma actually intended to maneuver himself into the government’s top spot (in effect, filling in the ‘three blank circles’ on one of his manifestos). What is your preferred theory? 

RH: I don’t have a preferred theory. 

SA: In your opinion, what impact might it have had on Japanese history if Tokugawa Yoshinobu been named Shogun instead of Tokugawa Iemochi in 1858? 

RH: I think it is safe to say that had Yoshinobu become shogun at that time, Ii Naosuke would have been defanged, and therefore would not have been able to purge his enemies from the government or to conclude the trade treaties without Imperial sanction. Therefore, he would not have been assassinated. And since his assassination marked the beginning of the end of the Tokugawa Bakufu . . . well, I think you can see where I’m headed with this logic. However, I prefer not to elaborate further in this forum, because I will discuss this in detail in my next book. 

SA: As well as providing an engaging narrative, we found Samurai Revolution to be an excellent reference work. It has extensive footnotes, a glossary of important terms, domains, and figures, a bibliography filled with excellent Japanese sources, and a sizable index. What were some of the issues you faced trying to balance the two-keeping the narrative interesting while making sure the book retained its usefulness as an historical text? In a related point, how did you handle the issue of bias among your sources-how to determine whether to take them at face value or read between the lines? 

RH: Writing requires technique, which, for me, has developed over many years. In other words, it is a craft that needs to be learned. Maintaining historical accuracy is an academic task. Writing a narrative to hold readers’ interest, maintaining historical and cultural accuracy, and presenting the humanity of my characters have been my overriding objectives in all my books. As you know, my first book, Ryoma: Life of a Renaissance Samurai, is an historical novel. As such, I did not cite my sources in that book. And while most of the dialogue is my own creation, it is based on historical documents including Ryoma’s letters, and definitive biographies of Ryoma and other main characters in the book. I took as much care to maintain historical and cultural accuracy in that book as I have in all subsequent books, including the historical narrative (i.e., nonfiction) Samurai Revolution, which is my best book thus far. 

Regarding your second question about taking my sources at face value or reading between the lines, I will limit my answer to a brief discussion of two compilations of interviews of Katsu Kaishu, from which I quote extensively in Samurai Revolution. As I explained in the Appendix, one of these, Hikawa Seiwa, is a compilation of interviews that originally appeared in newspapers and magazines. They were erroneously edited and partially rewritten by the editor of the original 1897 publication. Katsu Kaishu’s most authoritative biographer, Matsuura Rei, meticulously researched the original interviews to correct those errors. Matsuura’s annotated edition of Hikawa Seiwa, published by Kodansha in 1973, was my source. The other compilation of Kaishu interviews, Kaishu Goroku, was the work of one person, who conducted all of the interviews himself. As such, the original 1899 publication, which appeared shortly after Katsu Kaishu’s death, was a more reliable source than Hikawa Seiwa before the Kodansha edition. The Kaishu interviews are “oral histories,” recounted in the 1890s, decades after the fact. As such, they may be viewed with skepticism. But, as I write in my new book, their credibility “is reinforced by their agreement with Katsu Kaishu’s journals, written memoirs, and histories–as if he had drawn on them for the interviews–and by the fact that the contents in both volumes, though recorded, edited, and published separately, often replicate each other.” 

SA: You were a long term resident of Japan and made it a point to visit many of the locales and historical sites where the events described in Samurai Revolution took place. What advantages did that give you in the writing process over someone who had only read about them in documents and books?

RH: I won’t speak for other writers, but I would not have been able to write any of my books in the style that I have chosen, had I not been able to visualize certain of the historical events and places depicted. Visiting and observing–and feeling–the actual sites, not only buildings and other man-made structures but also the natural surroundings and topography of the places, aided in the visualization process. It also helped me to better understand the men who lived and died in those places.

SA: Now that you’ve written a comprehensive examination of the Bakumatsu and books on several of its most well-known figures and organizations, what projects can we expect from you in the future? 

RH: I am currently working on a new book of the same historical era. I hope to finish the manuscript this year. 

SA: Thank you, Mr. Hillsborough, for your insights and thoughts on this pivotal period of Japanese history, and best of luck on all your future projects. 

You can order Samurai Revolution on the SA’s Amazon store HERE or directly from Tuttle Publishing’s website HERE . Visit Romulus Hillsborough’s Samurai Revolution website for more about the book along with interesting essays and news items (such as documents recently discovered in Kochi sealed with Sakamoto Ryoma’s blood).

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Rotating Volleys of Merchandise: The Battle of Nagashino as Pop Culture Phenom


A few years ago we ran an article about the ‘Selling of Sekigahara’-how battles from Japan’s past were a popular subject for merchandising and found their way into all sorts of pop culture venues. It’s not unusual to see them featured in tabletop board games, video games, models, figures, toys, dioramas, TV programs, movies, and even weapon reproductions. Recently the SA podcast ran a feature on a battlefield archeology conference where the Battle of Nagashino in 1575 was a subject of one of the presentations, so we thought it a good time to run a similar feature on the merchandising of that famous battle that we’ve had in waiting for several months. We’re sticking to Japanese-produced items here, so you’ll have to read about GMT’s interesting depiction of the battle in their tabletop wargame ‘Samurai’ elsewhere (as well as similar efforts in Brian Bradford’s ‘Killer Katanas’ and ‘Total War: Shogun 2’). Likewise, we’re not going to discuss much in the way of books on the battle as they fall a bit outside of pop culture merchandising (although many of them are indeed pop culture efforts). With that in mind, here are some of the products fired the way of shoppers by the soldiers of corporate Japan. 

In passing, we’ll mention several sims/wargames dealing with the battle that have been released over the years. From the 1980’s is “Oda Teppotai (Oda Gun Corps)”, a hex-based rudimentary electronic game that’s beginner friendly, being on the difficulty level of early Avalon Hill games. A step up in complexity is “Nagashino: Shitaragahara Kassen (Nagashino: Battle of Shitaragahara)”, found in War Game in Japanese History #7. It’s a European-style game with area movement and card play that adds specific events and randomness to the proceedings. Finally, there’s Game Journal #23’s “Namida No Shitaragahara (Tears of Shitaragahara)” (one of two games found in this special Nobunaga Senki issue, the other being Anegawa). This hex based effort is the most detailed, accurate, and complex of the three listed here. Since we’ve covered all of these in varying degrees of detail on the Samurai Archives Forum, we’ll just refer you there for more details (particularly the Japanese history war game thread). 

Next up is the recent 90 page mook “Nagashino no Tatakai (Battle of Nagashino)” from Gakken (publishers of the popular pop culture history series “Rekishi Gunzou”). While at first glance it appears to be a pretty standard examination of the battle, the volume’s gimmick appears just inside the back cover. There’s a 3D four-panel fold-out map of the battlefield with troop positions along with a set of 3D glasses for your viewing pleasure. The 3D is of the old-fashioned blue/red 1950’s comics variety and truth to tell, the effect isn’t very good. However, the rest of the book is. Like most Gakken books it’s loaded with maps, charts, biographies, photos, and artwork. Particularly nice are several double paged spreads that show three/quarter bird’s eye views of the area at different points before, during, and after the battle. There are maps for every level-strategic, operational, and tactical, along with more detailed topographical maps. In-depth breakdowns of the armies and the types of unit tactics, weaponry, and defenses employed are shown. The entire campaign is examined with the climactic battle earning expanded coverage. Biographies of most of the major commanders present are given along with their actions during the battle (as expected, Oda Nobunaga, Tokugawa Ieyasu, and Takeda Katsuyori get the lion’s share but even their less famous vassals such as Hara Masatane get mentions). As a bonus, there’s also some nice material on the earlier battle of Migatagahara. Modern day photos explore the battlefield as it appears today. The history is a bit outdated (for example, the barricades are shown as being placed along the entire length of the line as well as having advanced redoubts-see Thomas Conlan's "Weapons & Fighting Techniques of the Samurai Warrior" for why this probably wasn't the case, or check out the excellent video tour HERE), but overall it’s a solid effort. Other volumes in the series include other of the ‘big four’ battles of the Sengoku- Sekigahara and the Siege of Osaka. 

Looking at a 3D battlefield is one thing, but building your own is much more fun. For those interested in giving that a try there’s “Nagashino no Tatakai (Battle of Nagashino)”, part of Facet’s “Sengoku Kassen (Warring States Battles)” papercraft line of products. This inexpensive and entertaining kit gives you everything you need to replicate and bring to life a famous painted screen of the battle. You get a base of the terrain and two sheets of various types of soldiers, sashimono, barricades, and castle sections. Punch them out and bring the battle to life! Enterprising miniature enthusiasts could even build a war game around it. Sure, it’s non-scale, but so much fun you won’t mind a bit. 

More in scale and of interest to miniaturists is Aoshima’s “Nagashino no Tatakai” plastic model kit, part of its “Japanese History Sengoku Battle” series. Aoshima produced a popular series of 20 samurai kits, each themed to a specific type of soldier, an individual leader, a defensive/offensive work, or even a subset of five kits dealing with Chushingura. As the years passed they would produce themed packages encompassing several of these kits along with additional items to make a diorama. There were the battles of Kawanakajima, Sekigahara, Migatagahara, a couple for Osaka, Shimabara, Odawara, an ‘Edo Elegance’ effort, and several kits showcasing the Date, Sanada, and Takeda clans. There was also the one we’re looking at, Nagashino. It was comprised of kits 4 (spearmen), 5 (arquebusiers), and 10 (Oda Nobunaga). A plastic unpainted base was included along with ‘grass’ to sprinkle on it, dowel rods and twine to construct barricades, and paper curtains to construct Nobunaga’s headquarters along with several flags. Ahead of its time, the kit was careful to show a mix of spearmen with the gunners rather than the masses of firearm toting samurai as seen in Kurosawa’s “Kagemusha”. The kits, while issued years ago, are regularly reissued and can be found cheaply on auction sites. 

But by far the best item featuring the battle to date is Videre/Oshiro Diorama Restoring Shops’s “Mikawa: Nagashino Castle”, the initial entry in their ‘Shirorama’ series of Japanese castle dioramas. This package has as its centerpiece a 1/1500 scale of the grounds and buildings of Nagashino Castle, the Tokugawa structure under siege by the Takeda whose relief precipitated the battle. Featuring an attractive 3D prepainted base, modelers can paint and add the included fences, walls, watchtowers, and buildings scattered about the several enclosures (‘maru’) of the castle. While most castle kits focus on the tower ('tenshu') of the castle (often the only part that has survived to the present day-or been reconstructed)-and for castles that never saw combat at that-this one is much more representative of the type of fortresses that were actually used in the Sengoku. Noted castle historian Fujii Hisao has overseen the development of the kit and the reconstruction is as accurate as possible. However, as well done as the diorama is, it’s only the tip of the iceberg of what’s included. 

 

There’s also an excellent 66 page book that details the history of the castle along with the battle itself. It’s loaded with maps, photographs, charts, and period artwork. The history of the castle contains the most up-to-date information, including the results of several recent digs. The battlefield history also contains much of the most recent scholarship, although it too presupposes barricades all along the line. Detailed painting and assembly instructions are given for the diorama. And since my wife told the retailer she was buying it for an English speaker, they included an excellent 68 page English translation by Ninomiya Hiroshi. It reflects the better scholarship also and among its sources are several excavation reports conducted by the local education system. There are quite a few interesting secondary sources used as well. It’s probably the best published English language treatment of the battle to date, being much more reliable than Stephen Turnbull’s outdated Osprey effort. 

Also included are two reproductions of antique maps of the castle, making for a nice wall poster-as well as being useful when putting the diorama together. There’s a great overhead shot of the castle and its environs that comes into play with a feature we’ll talk about in a bit. And-get this-there’s even a SOUNDTRACK CD. How cool is that? Yes, while building the diorama, you can chill out to several tunes specially written and performed for this set by Japanese guitarist Yamada Koji (best known for ‘Passport to Heaven’). 



And the coolest feature isn’t included in the box, but is rather downloaded through Itunes. It’s the Shirorama Nagashino Castle App. If you don’t own the diorama set, then the app does absolutely nothing-you’ll just see whatever you point your device at. But point it at the well done box artwork, or the aerial photo we talked about in the last paragraph, then the Sengoku comes to life. An animated AR version of the castle is superimposed upon the art/photo, featuring soldiers, rivers with running water, and a 3D rendition that can be examined from any angle. The app even challenges you to find the castle’s commander, Okudaira Sadamasa, squirreled away somewhere in the maze of defenses. It took some time, but we managed to ferret him out. Mikawa: Nagashino castle is the complete package, blending together several disparate elements to create a whole that is interactive, entertaining, and educational-showing once again that pop culture is an excellent way to bring history to the public at large. 

So that’s a good note to end on. There are other notable examples, such as the “Briefcase Diorama” of the battle that has over 50 miniature figures and opens up to a detailed prepainted layout of a section of the battlefield. There was a popular “Romance of History: Battle of Nagashino Bullet Revolution” series of plastic candy toys produced by Furuta that allowed buyers to build their own versions of Takeda Katsuyori’s army and their Tokugawa/Oda foes. And there’s the excellent full sized arquebus replica made out of wood and metal that was included with the premium edition of Koei’s “Nobungaga’s Ambition” 30th anniversary set. But this short sampling has given you a taste of the rotating volleys of merchandise that Japanese retailers have laid down on consumers looking for a taste of the battle of Nagashino-and the attraction that it continues to exert on the popular imagination over 400 years after it was decided.

Friday, April 18, 2014

A Dragon’s Head And A Loser's ‘Tale’-A Mini-Review Of Universal’s “The 47 Ronin”

OK, finally saw this. Narukagami's review on the Samurai Archives Film Forum covered much of what I also think, so I'll limit myself to new avenues. 

As expected, about a 2 on a 100 based accuracy scale. A Lord Asano attacks an unarmed Lord Kira, is sentenced to seppuku, and a group of 47 of his former vassals led by Oishi Yoshio murder Kira. Everything, and I do mean EVERYTHING, else is wrong. Even small details that were changed seemingly only for the sake of doing so. Culturally, they managed to get virtually everything wrong too, stressing the fantasy vibe. I mention this only in passing, because the movie claims to only be BASED on the story, and no sane person could watch the trailer and expect real history. So accuracy wasn't an issue for me. Does make you wonder why they hired Stephen Turnbull as an historical consultant and kept him on the set for months, because it appears they ignored any advice he might have given them. I need that gig. 

Keanu Reeves was GODAWFUL. It might have been the worst performance I've ever seen in a big budget movie. I get that he's supposed to be stoic, but Japanese actors can pull this off and still be interesting in the process. Reeves just looked eternally befuddled and mentally challenged, with his character coming across as the village idiot. And this is what's supposed to turn on the Great Lord Asano's daughter? Which brings us to... 

The Great Lord Asano's daughter Mika and the love story, which as Narukagami mentioned is shoehorned in for no discernible reason. Why any woman would find Reeves's character attractive is beyond me, and Mika is by far the most unlikeable female lead/primary love interest I've ever seen in a 'samurai' film. There is no chemistry between the two and you just want to see them die painfully, preferably at each other’s hand. With a chainsaw. 

This unlikablilty spills over to the rest of the cast. You're supposed to be CHEERING for the 47 Ronin, but they are so arrogant, intolerant (accurate here, as historically they booted out one of their members for being of insufficient rank), dishonest (even to their Lord), and downright mean spirited and nasty, you want to see them all die too (at least the film delivers here). Oishi is particularly loathsome. Granted, this is probably the way samurai were in real life, but in a fantasy epic, you want the heroes to be heroes. Flawed, yes, but not complete and unredeemable bastards. Conversely, Kira and his fox-witch are virtually the only engaging characters in the film. I did enjoy the fact that they role-reversed the usual depictions and made Kira a young, vibrant man and Asano the wrinkled and decrepit old Lord. 

And they spent 175 mil on this? Where? It sure isn't up on the screen. The CG wasn't as bad as I feared-the Kirin in the beginning was awful, and the Oni that Reeves fights in the UFC pit on Dejima (I was REALLY hoping for a Don Frye cameo) is almost as bad. Still, the effects they did for the 'swirling cloth' Tengu and the witch were well done, and the water dragon looked fine. The real problem with the CG is they did a very poor job of staging things so the actors looked like they were interacting with the fantasy creatures. This was particularly noticeable in the opening Kirin hunt and Reeves's battle with the water dragon. They'd have been much better off using practical effects-the few in the film (such as the Tengu makeup) were well done. 

The film also wasted some of its biggest assets. Kira's super-samurai is set up for a climactic battle against...someone, but is unsatisfactorily thrown away during the final fight. And the cool skull headed gun-toting tattooed dude featured prominently in advertising is given almost nothing to do, appearing for only a few seconds during the Dejima sequence during which he has zero impact on the proceedings. 

Having said all that, I actually did enjoy the movie as a fantasy epic. It moved along well, Kikuchi Rinko gives a great over-the-top performance as Kira’s witch that fits the mood a fantasy should have, the sets and costuming are goofy but impressively so, and the fighting that doesn’t involve monsters is pretty well done. If you approach this the same way as you would a late 50’s/early 60’s Ray Harryhausen style fantasy/quest film, I believe most fans of the genre would find it a pleasant enough way to pass two hours. And like most fantasy flicks, the problems with it only result in a so-bad-it’s-good vibe. It’s probably not worth buying the DVD/Blu-ray for most people, but definitely worth a spot on your Netflix queue. 

Speaking of which, the extras on the DVD/Blu-ray were a major disappointment. Basing this on a real story, you’d think they’d at least have a pseudo-documentary of the historical incident, but it rates barely a passing mention. If nothing else, it would have given Turnbull a chance to earn whatever they were paying him. Instead, you get several of your typical ‘behind-the-scenes-crew-member-with-a-video-camera’ vignettes. These look to have originally been part of a whole that was chopped up in order to give the appearance of more ‘extras’. There are a handful of deleted scenes, and that’s it. No commentary track or any sort of in-depth examination of the film-can’t say I blame them. They likely didn’t want to throw more money into a losing effort. The short vignettes spend much of their time having cast and crew gush about how awesomely talented and brilliant Reeves is and how they just loved working with him and having him on the set, and how he was seemingly in command of everything that went on from costuming to plot (so now we know who REALLY gets the blame for this box-office disaster). Yes, people will lie through their teeth to remain gainfully employed. If you want to hear anything about the Japanese cast, sorry, these aren’t the extras you’re looking for, because they receive only a few brief sentences. There are some hilariously jaw-dropping moments during the extras, such as when one of the ‘artistes’ claims that they’ve designed a film that visually is historically authentic and accurate but that yet brings it refreshingly into the present day and gives it a totally modern look. I like to think some mischievous editor dropped that into the proceedings for the sole purpose of amusing me. 

So enjoy the 47 Ronin for what it is-a mess of a film that features enough monsters, witchery, ass-kicking, and absurdity to make it worth a rental. And about as authentic and realistic as most of the other films that feature the 47 Ronin-which is to say not at all.