Thursday, March 25, 2010

Here Lies Dan Kutci, Victim of Sonnō Jōi Terrorism

29th January, 1860

Tucked away in a corner of Kōrin-ji, a Rinzai Zen Buddhist temple In Azabu, Minato-ku, Tokyo, one can find the grave of Dan Kutci, a Japanese linguist who was employed by the British legation. Kutci, like another fellow translator, Henry Heusken, whose tombstone lies within the shadow of Kutci’s, was killed in an act of terror committed by anti-foreigner ‘terrorists’ during the waning days of the Tokugawa Shogunate.

But who was Dan Kutci? Who wanted him dead and why? For starters, Dan Kutci was a native of Japan and was more commonly known among the Japanese by the name, Denkichi—Kumano no Denkichi, to be exact. Denkichi originally hailed from Shiotsumura in the province of Kishū (present day Shiotsu, Wakayama Prefecture). Denkichi served on a merchant ship, the Eirikimaru that was returning back to Setsu from Edo with a full cargo when the ship got caught in a storm on Dec 2, 1850. The ship drifted for 53 days until it was rescued by an American merchant ship, the Aukland, which brought the Japanese to San Francisco on March 5, 1851. With nowhere to go, the 17-man crew of the Eirikimaru was confined to a US Customs ship, the Polk, for nearly a year until they boarded the USS Saint Mary, a warship outbound for Asia where it was hoped that the Japanese could be repatriated with Perry’s upcoming expedition. One of the Japanese died along the way and was buried in Hilo, Hawaii. The others continued on and arrived in China where they soon found employment and were dissuaded from returning to Japan with the Perry Expedition. However, Denkichi was eventually able to rendezvous with Perry’s squadron as it made its way back to America and was able to secure passage on Perry’s flagship, the Mississippi in July 1854 when the ship steamed into Hong Kong.

After five years in America, Denkichi found himself back in China where he was hired as a translator by Rutherford Alcock, England’s minister to Japan and the two arrived in Edo (Tokyo) on May 26, 1859. It had been 9 years since Denkichi had been back in Japan. But after returning home after such a long absence, Denkichi didn’t quite fit in and acted in a manner that was perhaps more Western than Japanese. He told people he was British, wore western clothing and acted very haughtily, which angered many of his countrymen and made him a prime target for the radicals who were advocating expelling the foreigners and restoring imperial rule. And it was on the afternoon of January 29, 1860 that two samurai wearing straw hats to cover their faces, attacked Denkichi, driving either a short sword (wakizashi) or most likely a dagger (tantō) up until the hilt deep into his back, leaving it there. Poor Denkichi, haughty or not, had just become a victim of sonnō jōi terrorism.

Sonnō jōi (revere the emperor; expel the foreigners) was a rousing phrase and political philosophy to which young radicals rallied in the waning days of the Tokugawa shogunate. Fueled by a growing pro-imperial sentiment and anger at the shogunate for opening the country to the West, the sonnō jōi movement became a nascent unifying force that challenged and weakened the 250 year-old status quo of Tokugawa rule. As violence was the movement’s primary tool as a means of enforcing ‘heaven’s will’, this helped Japan slip into the chaos and wanton terror that would help define the Bakumatsu period and engulf the lives of many foreigners and Japanese alike.

Denkuchi may have died a victim of sonnō jōi terrorism 150 years ago, but he’s not forgotten.

Source: Miyanaga, Takashi. “The Assassination of Denkichi. Journal of Society and Labour, Hosei University, 40(3/4), 1993.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Modern Sammyrai Wet Dream: The History Channel’s Musashi Special

While cable’s History Channel isn’t producing an abundance of original shows dealing with actual history these days (instead giving us stuff like Monsterquest, Pawn Stars, American Pickers, Ax Men, and Ice Road Truckers-most of which are enjoyable fare), I was intrigued to see a promo for a new two hour special entitled ‘Samurai’. Well, at least I THINK it’s new-since virtually all of History Channel’s specials on pre-modern Japanese history are entitled ‘Samurai’, it’s hard to tell. It’s copyrighted 2009, so close enough. My wife Ayame was visiting from Japan and I thought it would be fun for her to see the West’s take on Japanese history. We were expecting the usual History Channel fare-nice visuals with a mixture of fact and legend that’s a small cut above most pop culture books. What we got was a modern sammyrai’s wet dream-an idealized two hour homage to that most overrated of samurai, Miyamoto Musashi.

The warning bells went off immediately when we saw that the show was going to be hosted by a martial artist, Mark Dacascos. As my father-in-law’s fond of pointing out, any history project with major input from a martial artist tends to be highly inaccurate and unreliable (as they’re usually only concerned with the promotion and glorification of martial arts). Well, OK, it could be worse-instead of Dacascos, they could have used Stephen Hayes. Dacascos is an accomplished martial artist, has appeared in several entertaining movies and TV shows (I remember him from ‘Crying Freeman’, although it was Shimada Yoko putting her goodies on display that provided the dramatic high point of the film), and seems like a nice enough guy-but it’s painfully obvious he knows little about Japanese culture or history.

Then things got real ugly. Dacascos stated that the program was going to focus on his attempt to follow in the footsteps of Miyamoto Musashi and rediscover the spirit of the ultimate warrior.

What followed was two hours of the worst hero-worshipping dreck I’ve witnessed in a long, long time. The likes of it probably haven’t been seen since Leni Riefenstahl’s ‘Triumph of the Will’ back in the 1930’s. Loaded with historical errors, misconceptions, and-dare I say it-assclownery, sitting through it was an exercise in discipline and self control. Ayame thought it was one of the funniest things she had ever seen, especially since it was filmed in such a solemn and serious manner-she giggled throughout most of the show. For sheer brutality to Japanese ‘samurai’ history, it’s perhaps only been exceeded by the books ‘Samurai Battles’ and ‘Samurai: The Philosophy of Victory’. Here are some of the points that really rang the bell on the ol’ BS high-striker…and these are just the ones I remember. I would have taken notes, but I didn’t want Ayame to think I’m THAT much of a history geek…

-About a third to a half of the two hour running time consists of shots of Dacascos driving around Japan, using public transportation, sitting in his hotel room, or practicing Kung Fu. Great if you’re a Dacascos fan-not so great for history buffs.

-Despite being one quarter Japanese (as he continually reminds the audience), Dacascos butchers most of the few Japanese terms and words used in the show. ‘Edo’ is pronounced ala ‘Speedo’. A wooden sword is a ‘bokutwo’. Kumamoto is Cumamoto (well, maybe when Brick McBurly is visiting). And when referring to multiple samurai, he adds an ‘s’. This of course would earn him an immediate ban on the SA.

-Musashi, naturally, is referred to as the greatest samurai in history. Even though he’s not mentioned once in the six volume Cambridge History of Japan or most other serious histories.

-Musashi’s sword style was the original sword style used by samurai and everything after that branched off of this. This is every bit as ridiculous as it sounds-even the show mentions multiple other earlier sword schools.

-Even though a samurai was expected to be proficient with all types of weaponry, his primary weapon in battle was the sword. Well, not really-depending on the era, it would be the bow, naginata, spear, or arquebus. In battle, a sword would be a weapon of last resort.

-Bushido is brought up as the code that all samurai lived by. I weep and clutch my copy of Animeigo’s “Bushido-The Cruel Code of the Samurai” for solace.

-Hideyoshi is called the Shogun of Japan.

-Wheeled US Civil War cannon are shown as being present at the Battle of Sekigahara.

-It’s stated that 80,000 died at Sekigahara. Wow! That would mean roughly 80% of the troops that actually engaged in battle that day died. To say nothing of the wounded. Whose butt did they pull that figure out of?

-Dacascos states that at Sekigahara the “record shows that Musashi distinguished himself in battle”. Gosh, Mark, what record would that be? It’s not one I’ve ever heard of, or any American or Japanese historians have either. In fact, a great many of them doubt that Musashi was even AT Sekigahara.

-When describing Musashi’s duels with the Yoshioka school in Kyoto, the fact that he ambushed and killed a child as part of his initial attack in the final meeting is never brought up-even though there’s an extended recreation of the battle. This theme continues throughout the program-anything that portrays Musashi as less than heroic and the ultimate warrior is conveniently omitted.

-In a similar vein, Musashi's notorious lack of hygiene, reluctance to bathe, and his skin disease is never addressed.

-Musashi’s ploy of arriving late to duels was the first instance of psychological ploys in samurai history-he originated the concept of psychological warfare in 1604. Well, except maybe for that Sun Tzu guy. And the hundreds of recorded instances of psychological ploys covering the thousand years of Japanese history before Musashi, going back to the earliest surviving written works in Japan.

-Dacascos is seen performing random kata in the middle of the night with a katana while on an elevated pedestrian walkway across one of the busiest intersections in Kyoto. Nothing like leaving viewers with the impression that it's perfectly legal and all right to carry a sword around modern Japan and whip it out in the middle of a major city.

-In a particularly painful moment for your reviewer, Dacascos is sitting around and musing (this isn’t a direct quote since I didn’t write it down, but it’s close): ‘I think I’m realizing…I think I’m beginning to understand…the sword is special to a samurai. I think…(extra long dramatic Bill Shatner pause here)…the sword could be called…the soul of the samurai’. Dacascos says this with so much gravity and reverence that you’d almost believe he’s the first person to have this idea, even though it’s almost always in the first paragraph of every pop culture book on the samurai.

-While showing how a sword is forged, it’s stated that this forge uses only traditional medieval methods. While the smith uses an automated power hammer to pound out folds.

-Dacascos is helping out with traditional tandem hammer pounding on a sword. With a look of awe, he states he can feel energy radiating from the hammer. Thankfully, that’s as far as it goes-Dacascos doesn’t become the SA’s infamous ‘Dancing Sword Guy’.

-When the duel with Kojiro Sasaki at Ganryujima is examined, it’s the typical ‘Musashi, all alone, arrives late with boat oar and kills Sasaki’ scenario. No mention that Musashi actually had a large group of his followers with him, that it’s likely he only wounded Sasaki in the duel, and that Musashi’s posse later ambushed and killed Sasaki.

-The modern day town of Fukushima is referred to by Dacascos as ‘a town full of samurais’. No, Mark, samurai were removed as a class way over a hundred thirty years ago. Having samurai ancestry and taking part in reenactments doesn’t make you a samurai. It’d be great if they were, because then my father-in-law would be one and could make me the family heir. This bit also leaves viewers with the mistaken impression that the members of the Takeda School of Archery live a traditional samurai lifestyle 24/7, eschewing all modern conveniences.

-Samurai are described as the only group of people in world history whose sole job for over a thousand years was the practice and perfection of the art of warfare. Well, their sole job except for running farms, estates, day to day menial labor, and a million other bureaucratic, political, and administrative duties ranging from signing treaties with foreign countries to being a sandal bearer.

-The World War II Japanese super battleship Musashi was named in honor of Miyamoto Musashi. No, no, no! Like its sister ship the Yamato, it was named for a Japanese province in accordance with the existing naval naming standards.

-The battle of Osaka was the last battle in samurai history (and they have Musashi fighting on the side of the Tokugawa). Guess these guys haven’t heard of the later huge conflict of Shimambara, the scores of battles in the Bakumatsu, or the myriad other smaller battles. Which brings us to…

-…the fact that Musashi’s adventures during the Shimambara rebellion are not brought up despite the fact that as a staff officer of the Ogasawara it was a major episode in his life. Obviously, giving details of Musashi’s role in the wholesale slaughter of tens of thousands of peasants (many of them Christians) would tend to take the shine off the figure Dacascos is painting. Not to mention the fact that Mr. Invincible Sword Master was put out of action after being hit by a peasant with a thrown rock. Yes, the ‘Ultimate Warrior’ was defeated by the lowliest of the low, a completely untrained peasant with the most basic of weapons.

-The Tokugawa Shogunate banned all guns. Wrong again-there were tens of thousands of guns, likely even hundreds of thousands, in Japan, moreso than any European country was able to field at the time. This includes the Edo period, the time of the Tokugawa Shogunate.

-The samurai as a class ended in 1853. Nope, sorry, they held their status for another 20 years or so during which some of the most famous incidents in samurai history took place.

-Musashi was different from every other samurai because only HE was able to achieve enlightenment. Dacascos really says this. I suppose all those other samurai who retired, took religious vows, and devoted their lives to Buddha and the kami were just poseurs.

-In the one part of the show that rang true, Musashi’s modern day popularity is traced primarily to the Yoshikawa novel ‘Musashi’ which is described as romanticized and largely inaccurate. It should also be noted the show gives virtually NO mention to what Musashi was best known for before the Yoshikawa serial/novel appeared-his skills as an artist. Before the novel came out, he was far better known for his ink paintings and sculptures than for his reputation as a swordsman.

And this was just the very obvious, factually incorrect stuff. There’s more for those who dare to sit through it. All in all, it was the most wretched cesspool of blind Musashi worship and butt kissing imaginable. It points out the dangers inherent in letting a martial artist, real (as in Dacascos’s case) or imagined, within 100 miles where actual history is concerned (unless the martial artist in question is Karl Friday). ‘Samurai’ rivals Romulus Hillsborough’s book ‘Ryoma-A Renaissance Samurai’ for pure unadulterated adulation. For the hordes of Ghost Dog watching, video game playing modern sammyrai who profess to follow the ways of Bushido in our honorless modern world, it was a wet dream come true.

There were two moments in this production that encapsulated the entire fiasco for me. One is where Dacascos is hanging onto the straps of a streetcar and holding forth on the glory of Musashi-with a sticker promoting the ‘SMAP’ boys hovering over his head, seemingly giving its tacit approval to the ongoing buffoonery. The second even gives a possible explanation for where all the inaccuracies on display stem from. As Dacascos sits in his hotel room reading (more accurately, looking at the pictures in) an English language coffee-table book on samurai, I recognized that the book was written by none other than Stephen Turnbull. Need I say more?