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Ask Me Anything

In Japanese History on March 12, 2015 at 2:05 pm

Nandemo kiite
(Ask Me Anything)


I totally rivered[i] myself on an article. Not only was the scope of the article getting out of control, I must have accidentally deleted a portion of it. I was just frustrated and wanted to get an article out as soon as possible. So I decided to open up the floor to questions for a Reddit-style #AMA. Well, OK, it’s not reddit-style as it didn’t happen in real time. But you get the point.

If you have a question you’d like to ask for a future AMA, feel free to add in the comments section. When there’s enough demand, I’ll do this again.


Why Don’t Other Countries Use Washlettes?

Dude, this is a good question and it’s a question I’ve actually thought about myself!

For the readers who aren’t familiar, a great deal of Japanese toilets – especially in the home – are outfitted with heated toilet seats, adjustable warm water bidets, and adjustable warm water asshole cleaners. Some models have a self-cleaning function (for the water jets, not the whole toilet), a deodorizer mechanism, and even sensors that engage an auto-flush mechanism as soon as you move away from the toilet. Once you’ve become accustomed to this type of toilet, any other 1st world countries’ toilets seem barbaric.

So if these “robo-toilets” are so great, why doesn’t everyone use them? I wondered this myself for years until I was back in the US, taking a dump. I looked around the bathroom and realized that the difference most likely lays in the fact that Japanese bathrooms are laid out very different from western bathrooms. The Japanese consider the bath/shower one space, for cleaning and relaxing. The toilet is a completely separate room; it’s dirty and shouldn’t be in the same room that you relax in after a hard day’s work.

What I noticed in the western bathroom is that not only are the bath/shower and toilet combined, the toilet in American bathrooms is often right next to the bath/shower. This means that there is no safe place for an electrical outlet because… hello, risk of electrocution. You have to plug in a Washlette. Even in American bath/showers that have the toilet isolated, there isn’t much of a tradition of needing electrical outlets where the toilet is – and indeed it could get pretty unsightly stringing out cords or extension cords.

In short, bathing culture, shitting culture, and where cultures think we should have electrical outlets installed is different. That’s my thoughts on why the Washlette hasn’t caught on outside of Japan.


Any Idea Where Your Interest in Etymology Came From?

I think I’ve mentioned this here and there, but maybe not directly on the blog. In short, I’ve always been curious about “why things are the way they are now if they weren’t that way before.” This is probably a bad answer. So, let’s go back to my junior high and high school days.

In junior high, my parents encouraged me to learn a foreign language. If I remember correctly, it wasn’t a pre-requisite until high school, but for some reason my parents thought it would be good for me to start in junior high. I was pretty opposed to the idea. Learning a foreign language seemed like the most boring thing I could ever do.

I eventually relented and took Latin[ii]. Prior to studying Latin, I sucked at English – grammar, in particular. Studying Latin changed my entire perspective on the world. My grammar also got really good. As you may know, something like 80% of Modern English vocabulary is derived from Latin – much of it via French. Once I started to see the connection between Latin and English, I got really curious about why there was such a connection. 2 books in particular really sparked a flame: The Story of Latin and the Romance Languages by Mario Pei and The Story of English by Robert McCrum and Robert MacNeil[iii]. I still recommend these books to anyone who is looking for a way to get into the subject. They’re both written in pretty accessible language, though admittedly, the Mario Pei book assumes you have some familiarity with a Romance Language or two.

Later, in university, I did a short stint studying abroad in Italy. It was here that I realized that having a solid base in Latin and understanding many of the rules governing sound changes in Vulgar Latin[iv] gave me VIP access to most of the local dialects that I came into contact with. And while I can’t say I understood every non-standard Italian word or phrase that I came across (I definitely couldn’t), I could definitely understand the linguistic processes at work.


So, years later when I moved to Japan, I found myself staring at train station names and quickly looking up the kanji. I saw names like 渋谷 Shibuya “astringent valley,” 新宿 Shinjuku “new lodging,[v]谷中 Yanaka “middle of the valley” and I was curious about the stories behind these. At first, I took them at face value but as I began to investigate more – for the purpose of this blog, that is – I realized that more often than not we can’t take the kanji at face value. As I’ve written more and more, I’ve also realized that I can use my geeky curiosity about etymology as an excuse to explore the history of the city as well.

So, I think my interest is really based on a fascination with change and the dynamics of recorded history. Edo-Tōkyō has evolved and changed over the years and so has the Japanese language and culture.

japanese history

What Got You Interested in Japanese History?

Short answer. After I came to Japan, I wanted to understand Japanese culture more deeply and I wanted to have a shared background with the people around me.

Long answer. When I first visited Japan in 2002-2003, I was staying in 鶯谷 Uguisudani and almost every day, I’d take a walk around the area that I now know is the 上野台地 Ueno Daichi Ueno Plateau. I stumbled across what is left of 寛永寺 Kan’ei-ji, one the 2 Tokugawa funerary temples in Edo-Tōkyō[vi]. I found the 勅額門 chokugaku mon imperial scroll gates of Tokugawa Ietsuna and Tsunayoshi (4th and 5th shōguns, respectively). I later found the grave of Tokugawa Yoshinobu, a stone’s throw away in Yanaka. When I asked my Japanese friends about who these shōguns were, I couldn’t get any good answers. One friend said, “I think Tokugawa Iemitsu was gay.” Well, whatever. Lots of people are gay, but only 15 people were Tokugawa shōguns. I needed answers and I wasn’t getting jack shit.

So before I’d go to bed each night, I’d log on to the public computer at the hotel I was staying at and google as much as I could on the shōguns. As a random sort of game, I made it my goal to visit all 15 shōguns’ graves before I returned to America. In the end, on that trip I only visited 5[vii]. I knew nothing about Japanese history so I felt like I was a detective uncovering a great mystery. Every layer I peeled away made the next layer so much more tantalizing.

Before I knew it, I was obsessed with this old culture and its ways. Soon I found myself strung out on the most hardcore strains of J-History. I was blowing history professors in Shinjuku 2-chōme for a fix of Bakumatsu here, a Nobunaga story there. Then I hit rock bottom – I tried to write a series of articles about the rivers of Edo-Tōkyō.

Miniature diorama of Nihonbashi at the Edo-Tokyo Museum.

Miniature diorama of Nihonbashi at the Edo-Tokyo Museum.

You Often Use The Phrase Edo-Tōkyō…

That’s not a question.

But anyhoo, yes. I often use the term “Edo-Tōkyō.” Other than the 江戸東京博物館 Edo-Tōkyō Hakubutsukan Edo-Tōkyō Museum, I don’t see the word in English much. However, the term 江戸東京 Edo-Tōkyō is something I come across from time to time in Japanese. Since Edo eventually became Tōkyō, this is a convenient Japanese word to describe the city as a continuum. Clearly Edo is not the same as modern Tōkyō, but they don’t exist independent of each other. Since a lot of my blog deals with the history of Edo and Tōkyō, I decided long ago to use the concept of Edo-Tōkyō as a term and an approach to dealing with the life of the city.


How Long Have You Been in Edo?

Hahahaha. Nice reference to this.

My 10 year anniversary was in January of this year.

Where has the time gone? I still remember my first night in my first apartment on my 2nd day as a resident like it was yesterday[viii].

Women of the Ōoku in Edo Castle

Women of the Ōoku in Edo Castle

What Exactly Are The “Shōgunal Duties” Performed Within The Friendly Confines of The Ōoku?

Well, I know this is my boy, Rekishi no Tabi, just messing with me, but OK. Sure. Let’s talk about what went down in the Ōoku.

First of all, Ōoku means “the great interior” and refers to a physical location in 江戸城 Edo-jō Edo Castle. In theory, it was the most isolated interior section of the castle compound. This is where the women lived. Many people translate the term as “the shōgun’s harem.” Rekishi no Tabi and I love to joke around about this too. In popular culture, the Ōoku was and is often imagined as the shōgun’s garden of earthly delights. In reality, this was just the women’s quarters of the shōgun’s court. The women held official posts within a hierarchy, with the shōgun’s 御台所 midaidokoro legal wife at the top[ix]. In a culture steeped in ritual, one did not simply strut into the Ōoku and fuck until one’s dick fell off.

The Ōoku existed because Japanese culture at this time was strictly patrilineal. This meant any family with a name needed sons to carry on the family line. Women had value in the culture in so far as they could provide heirs to the male head of the family. Love happened. Marriages happened. But males were expected to keep the family going and you need women for that. Once you’re talking about imperial succession, daimyō succession, or most importantly shōgunal succession, combined with high infant mortality rates, taking concubines isn’t such a crazy idea. It’s basically a non-egalitarian form of polyamory[x]. You have a primary partner that you’re expected to respect and take care of, but the man is expected to get a little on the side for the benefit of the family line. Women of elites weren’t extended this privilege in the Edo Period – though many of them most certainly did. Even in modern times Japanese culture is fairly monogamish[xi].

But of course, everyone wants to hear about the sex – myself included – so let me take this chance to teach you some sexxxy Ōoku vocabulary. Regardless of rank within the hierarchy, women could be divided into 2 clear categories: 御手付 o-tetsuki “those touched by the shōgun” and 御清 o-kiyo “the pure ones.” The number of o-tetsuki skyrocketed during the reign of the 11th shōgun and my personal hero, Tokugawa Ienari[xii], the Party Shōgun.


When a Japanese Person is Named Sakura (for example), How Can One Tell If It’s a Male or a Female?

About the given name “Sakura…” As far as I know, this is only a female name. There are a variety of ways to write it in kanji: 桜 Sakura (cherry blossom), 愛咲 Sakura (love blooms), さくら Sakura (cute way to write “cherry blossom”). There is also a family name 佐久良 Sakura (has nothing to do with cherry blossoms).

The easiest way to identify a female name is if it’s written in hiragana only. In this case, it would be さくら Sakura. If you were to meet a man with the name “Sakura,” the name would be written with kanji that look “masculine.” However, I’m not sure what that would look like, though. In general, cherry blossoms and most flowers are considered delicate and feminine so I doubt you will find many men named “Sakura.”

On a side note, katakana is considered more masculine than hiragana, so theoretically you could name a son サクラ Sakura, but to my eyes, this looks like a manga character or a young girl who works in the sex industry. I’m not sure how to wrap up this answer tidily, but I’d say men’s names generally don’t include kanji for flowers and fruit.

UPDATE: That said I found the name 秋桜 Sakura as a boy’s name on the website DQNネーム Fucked Up Names. All of the comments on that name expressed shock at both the name and the way of writing it. The kanji mean “autumn cherry blossom” with the first kanji being completely silent. I showed it to a few native speakers and they were just confused by it. 2 people were surprised it was even a name. They thought it was a species of tree. Everyone thought it was weird to give a boy this name at all.

It’s like naming an American boy Jennifer. You could do it, but everyone of our generation will think of it as a girl’s name.

Hope that answered your question…

caste system t-shirt

Where Do Doctors Fit Into the 4-Tier Class System?

Great question!

I haven’t researched this, but I think I can take a good stab at it. If someone else knows more, I’d love to hear it.

Much to do is made of the 士農工商 shinōkōshō system – it means “samurai, farmers, artisans, merchants” and from top to bottom it lays out a social hierarchy with samurai at the top and merchants at the bottom. To understand Edo Period society, you have to know this rigid system. But there are 2 more things you need to know. First, these castes were essentially inherited ranks and secondly, they weren’t always linked to your profession. There were also professions and/or families that existed outside of the system. Also, contrary to popular belief, social mobility was a possibility in certain situations. Adoption of males into families that lacked male heirs was one way, but samurai status could also be bought or sold in some domains.

As for doctors… just think about today. It costs a lot of money to become a doctor because you need access to the latest research and you need to get certain qualifications. An Edo Period doctor didn’t need certificates (as far as I know[xiii]), but he needed access to the best Chinese, Japanese, and Dutch medical knowledge available. This means an Edo Period doctor needed to be rich enough or hold enough rank to get access to certain texts. While it’s possible that some merchant families could buy this kind of education for their sons, I’m gonna go out on a limb and say that only samurai families and imperial court families could do this. Of those samurai families, 旗本 hatamoto direct retainers of the shōgun would be likely candidates. The 朝廷 chōtei imperial court and the 幕府 bakufu shōgunate had their own special doctors. I’m assuming the government of each 藩 han domain also had their own network of doctors.

A similar question came up on Twitter a while back about Buddhist monks. Where did they fit into the system? The monks/priests of Shintō and Buddhism could theoretically come from any rank. So someone might have been elite, but for some reason or another they decided to became a Buddhist priest. An elite would then become an elite in the religious order. Their elite status didn’t just disappear. The wives of the Tokugawa shōguns were required to become monks upon the death of the shōgun.

In short, the so-called “4 classes of the Edo Period” weren’t as strict as they could have been[xiv]. But, doctors and monks would have been afforded respect worthy of the class they were born into[xv] and do to the amount education required to become a doctor or a monk, these positions would have been filled by men (and sometimes women) who had a lot of money. By default this means the samurai and court nobles, but certainly could have included merchants and rich farmers.


Can I Get A Geisha In This Day And Age? How Much Does It Cost?

Yes, you can. But enjoying geisha entertainment today is going to cost you so much more than it would have in the Edo Period. The age of a geisha today will be somewhat older than the age of an Edo Period geisha. You’ll also probably have to be introduced by an acquaintance before you’re allowed to attend a geisha’s performance.

Also your phrasing “Can I get a geisha” is a little bit disturbing to me. But I’ll talk about that later.

I, for one, have never enjoyed a proper geisha performance. It is way out of my price range and even if I wanted to get into that scene, I don’t have the right connections. And believe me it takes connections, time, and money to get access to that world today. As such I can’t quote you clear prices, but I once spoke to ex-Kyōtoite who is a manager of a 料亭 ryōtei traditional restaurant in Tōkyō that features geisha. She told me that a night of entertainment starts at about 50,000円-60,000円 ($500-$600 USD) and can go anywhere upwards of that.

In short, it’s not cheap.

Onsen geisha

Onsen geisha

I will say that there is something called 温泉芸者 onsen geisha (“hot spring geisha”). This is a term that has evolved over time, just as the terms 芸子 geiko and 芸者 geisha have also evolved over time. Geisha isn’t a consistent term historically and it also varied from location to location. Onsen geisha may be a cheap alternative to high ranking geisha. But you have know what you’re getting into.

Today the general understanding to the average Japanese person is that a geisha is a performer – a kind of artist or entertainer. Some even say that she’s the precursor of the modern アイドル aidoru idol.

The persistent western image of the geisha as a sex worker is most definitely a misunderstanding of geisha’s job. It’s also born out of the changing culture from the Bakumatsu up to the WWII era. Geisha weren’t prostitutes by default. They were performers, entertainers. But they were human so sometimes sexual relationships happened. Sex with customers wasn’t a requirement of the job in most cases. But even geisha fall in love.

In Yoshiwara and in the Meiji, Taishō, and Shōwa onsen towns, the “onsen geisha” became a profitable job for a woman of traditional musical talents and conversation. She would have been looked down upon by her colleagues in Kyōto and Tōkyō, but the services wouldn’t have been much different[xvi]. The difference in Meiji Era Tōkyō is that the geisha of Yoshiwara were in direct competition with prostitutes. I think there was a strong social pressure for geisha at any time in history to exchange sex for money, though they didn’t have to.

The Bubble Economy saw a new generation of liberated Japanese women in Tōkyō, but women in small towns, especially rural onsen towns, were left behind economically. By the time the Bubble burst, domestic tourism to onsen towns (as opposed to overseas tourism) increased. Demand for traditional entertainment waned and the onsen geisha rose in popularity as curious sexual fetish. As a result the onsen geisha is now just a nostalgic version of what in Tōkyō is usually thought of as デリヘル deri heru delivery health (outcall prostitution). In the case of onsen geisha, they show up at your hotel room at the hot spring dressed as geisha. But these girls are not geisha. It’s just cosplay.

All of this said, there are still some onsen geisha who aren’t prostitutes and will come and perform and party with you at a hot spring.

onsen geisha now

Can I Get a Woot Woot?

Yes, you can.

Woot woot!


Me & My Girlfriend Are Coming to Tokyo This Summer For Our Honeymoon. I Fancy Myself a Bit of a History Buff, So Where Do You Recommend For the Ultimate Edo Experience?

First of all, congratulations!

Second of all, I hate this question because I don’t want to fuck up your honeymoon. lol
I don’t know what you guys like and what you’d like to see.

Ummmm… OK, so if you read my blog, then I assume you like history and traditional stuff.

I’d recommend these things:

  • Edo-Tokyo Museum
  • Ueno Park
  • Yanaka Ginza
  • Yanaka Cemetery
  • Edo Castle
  • Tōkyō Water Works Museum
  • Kōrakuen
  • Rikugien
  • Hama Rikyū Teien
  • Shiba Rikyū Teien
  • Zōjō-ji
  • Tōkyō Tower
  • Kappabashi
  • A bicycle ride along the Sumida River
  • Ride a yakatbune (party boat in Tōkyō Bay)
  • A walk from Ueno Station through Ameyoko-chō and Okachimachi to Akihabara
  • Or look through the blog for individual places you’d like to see!

Also keep in mind, there’s no “Ultimate Edo Experience.” Very little of Edo remains so you have to really go out of your way to look for it. Sometimes you have to be satisfied with a mere memorial plaque or an old stone wall. Anyways, I think I made a pretty decent list for you.

Fingers crossed!

Kuramaebashi (Kuramae Bridge)

Kuramaebashi (Kuramae Bridge)

Of All the Place Names You’ve Researched, Which Investigation Produced the Results That Excited or Surprised You the Most? What Do You Consider Your Favorite “Find?”

This is a really hard question to answer.

Recently, all the “horse” places in Setagaya blew my mind… simply because it was all a coincidence that came from a reader request. Even when I tried to quit the area, another horse related place name came up. But that’s what makes writing this blog so fun for me. I like to think I’m teaching my readers about Edo-Tōkyō but the truth is that I’m learning with you… so I hope we’re fellow travelers on this journey through history.

The crazy river series I did, despite the burn out I inflicted upon myself, is something I look back at with a certain amount of pride. The rivers come in contact with so many interesting areas and related local histories. Akihabara was interesting for me because I had no idea it was such a recent invention.

Kuramae is another favorite of mine because it changed my fundamental approach to the blog. I’m actually pretty sure that’s when all the articles started getting longer. When I wrote that article, I realized that I didn’t have to focus on etymology[xvii], but I could use etymology as a launch pad to look at the bigger picture. I think that was when I started to go into the cultural history of the area.

I feel like I’m not actually answering your question and for that I apologize. The truth is, as far as linguistics and etymology go… nothing’s shocking to me anymore. My favorite “find,” as you put it, is that people actually read the blog. Of that small group of people who follow me, a few people ask questions and suggest articles. Some even donate a dollar here and there. That’s the biggest surprise for me – far bigger than any place name.

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[i] Here at JapanThis! we like to use the verb “to river oneself” to describe scope creep.
[ii] My friends took German, Spanish, and French. And everyone said the teachers were strict or mean. No one took Latin, so it seemed like the safest bet.
[iii] The book was originally a companion edition to a PBS mini-series on the history of the English language.
[iv] Not what you think it means…
[v] “Where’s the old one?” I wondered…
[vi] Here is my article on the graves of the Tokugawa Shōguns.
[vii] Ieyasu (1st), Iemitsu (3rd), Ietsuna (4th), Tsunayoshi (5th), Yoshinobu (15th). There was so little information on the web at that time, that I couldn’t even figure out where the other shōguns were interred. Though I’ve been to all the sites, there are 6 graves that I haven’t actually seen with my own eyes. And by graves, I don’t mean the gate ruins. The actual graves at Kan’ei-ji are off limits to the public and photography is banned. I haven’t given up hope, though.
[viii] Mainly because I was woken up by my first earthquake.
[ix] This is an oversimplification on my part, to say the least. Also, the shōgun’s wife had an abbreviated title, 御台様 midai-sama.
[x] Another ‘modern’ concept might be “open marriage.” Though, by ‘modern’ standards, this would be a very unfair example of an open marriage.
[xi] A certain “don’t ask, don’t tell” ethos is fairly prevalent.
[xii] Ienari didn’t limit his sexual explorations to the “friendly confines” of the Ōoku. There is some corroborating evidence that he regularly summoned geisha and girls from highest end shops in 吉原 Yoshiwara to Edo Castle. I trust you know Yoshiwara. It was Edo’s licensed pleasure quarter and it spanned several city blocks. You can think of it as a sexual amusement park with kimonos.
[xiii] So I could be very wrong about the no need for certification thing…
[xiv] It was a pretty stupid system anyways and that’s why it wasn’t so literal.
[xv] This horizontal mobility still exists in some traditional Japanese companies. While American companies seek specialists, traditional Japanese companies seek to develop generalists. This is an echo of the old Japanese patriarchal system.
[xvi] I’m assuming Kyōto would have been different. Kyōto has remained somewhat crystallized since the Edo Period.
[xvii] The etymology of Kuramae is actually quite simple and well documented.

  1. Great Q&A, thanks a lot! But on the rank and status of physicians in Edo-jiddai I would like to offer a different version. Having written a novel of nearly 1000 pages on the German physician Philipp Franz von Siebold, marketing-wise subtitled “the Nippon trilogy” (English summary on, I had to deal with my hero’s students, i. e. around fifty Japanese medical doctors of the late Edo period. During twenty years of research in this field I did not come across a single physician with a Samurai family background. There is a very simple reason for it that highlights another feature of Japanese culture during the Edo period: it was unthinkable to touch the body of an unlucky stranger, be he or she (even worse) sick or injured. If you were unfortunate enough to fall ill, break your leg, lose eyesight etc. during a travel on the highly frequented Edo roads, nobody helped you, let alone touch you. You were going to die if you couldn’t get out of the mess by yourself. For somebody with Samurai family background it was even more impossible to touch a sick stranger. Now comes the interesting part: why was that so? Astonishingly, this is a result of the profound concept (or misconception) of ‘giri’, the Japanese system of social and symbolic duties and debts ( Now the way of thinking of the average Japanese was as follows: “Goodness gracious me! He’s sick/injured/dying! He needs help! But…if I help him… he will have a lifelong debt towards me. Poor guy, I cannot put this unbearable burden on him. Better for him to ask the gods for help. I’ll do a serious prayer for him at the next temple and spend a dime on it. Let’s go.”

    • Again, I’m not an expert on doctors in the Edo Period. And perhaps I wasn’t consistent in my language. But I want to address 3 points that you brought up. The first one is going to be harsh, the next two are up for discussion.

      But you brought up the issue of 義理 (giri “duty/obligation”) as a reason for… I’m not sure why you brought it up, to be honest. I was talking about the rank of doctors within the caste system. 義理 has nothing whatsoever to do with one’s job or the social rank one is born into. It’s just a social obligation of daily interactions with people around you.

      Furthermore, I flat out reject your example of a person refusing to help an injured person on the roadside because they would be forcing 義理 on the person they helped. Not only do we have 昔話 (mukashibanashi “old popular tales”) replete with selfless compassion and acts of kindness towards strangers in need – including injured ones; the concept of 義理 itself actually REQUIRES that you help those people. Sure, the helped person might feel 義理 to return the favor (ie; gratitude), but social dynamics aren’t equations. Two potential acts of human kindness don’t just cancel out the innate compassion and desire to help others in need. This 義理 thing you brought up completely misunderstands what 義理 is on a fundamental level and distracts from the reader’s question.

      However, I want to address the 2 points you brought up that are actually related to the reader’s question about where doctors fit into the caste system.

      Firstly, you said that in the Edo Period it was unthinkable to touch the body of a sick/dying/unlucky person. To a certain extent, I will agree with you. Shintō puts a high priority on ritual cleanliness. Later, Buddhism compounded this priority. The 穢多 (eta “untouchables,” a word that makes my skin crawl because it’s so cruel), existed outside of the caste system. Famously, they were executioners, butchers, and whatnot. Some of them got rich doing jobs no one else would deign to do. I’m assuming, you’re referring to this group of people. And as I said in my response to the reader, if someone of any rank had access to enough money to buy the right education, I’m assuming they could practice medicine among certain groups. There was no “doctor” ranking in the caste system.

      But you also said that you found no samurai doctors (from among about 50 Japanese students of Siebold). This is curious to me and I have no evidence against it. To me, this is your strongest argument because I just don’t know enough about the topic.

      I can’t think of any names off the top of my head, but I have read of references to shōgunate doctors and herbalists. I’ve also heard of imperial court doctors and herbalists. The only guy I can think of right now is Hanaoka Seishū, his family descended from imperial blood. You probably know him. He is sometimes credited as the first Japanese doctor to use a kind of general anesthesia and if I’m not mistaken, he was more or less a contemporary of Siebold, right? (

      But by the early Bakumatsu, Dutch Learning and “Western Learning” is definitely something the samurai families were involved in. I see know reason why they wouldn’t be before.

      I’m looking for a smack down, a clear refutation that what I said to the reader was wrong. I’m always open to an education.

      • OK then, here is an important testimonial for my description of giri as a paradoxically guiding principle for non-assistance of suffering persons. I dug this story up when I studied the life and times of Kokichi Mikimoto who was to become the founder of industrial pearl cultivation. In his youth, more precisely in spring of 1878 at the age of twenty, he traveled on foot on the Tokaido from his hometown near Ise to Tokio and was on his way back some six weeks later. Starting from the former checkpoint at Hakone, his second or third station since he left Tokio, he joined a small group of travellers. One of them grew sick during the ascent of the Hakone and the others just went on. Then his traveling companion collapsed. Mikimoto, a naive boy from the countryside who had lived in a frugal paradise so far, was aghast when he noticed that nobody was going to help his companion. Many travelers just passed and did as if Mikimoto and the unconscious were nonexistent, nothing but fresh air. Mikimoto managed to make the stranger feel better by infusing him some allegedly magical pills that he had actually bought in Tokio for his sick father. The guy indeed recovered, felt well again and was more than grateful to Mikimoto for having saved his life. But he did even more than that and told this story to the owner of the next inn on his way – who was a friend of a journalist of Shizuoka Shinbun whom he told the same story. Before Mikimoto reached some seven days later his home town Toba, he was famous all over the country for having selflessly helped a traveling stranger, something unheard of in Japan. This was the starting point of Mikimotos great career as one of the biggest inventors and entrepreneurs of Japan.

        This is not literature, not tale or legend, that’s history.

      • Magical pills?

        And I still fail to see what this has to do with 義理 or doctors being of samurai status. You’re just babbling, sorry.

    • What are you talking about? He was talking about what social status doctors held and you started talking about something completely different.

      I’m confused.

  2. I’m going to start using the phrase “I rivered myself” as a general euphemism in life…

  3. I would say that many doctors in the Edo period were from samurai families. They were often the second, third or fourth sons born into samurai families with little chance of inheriting hereditary positions or assuming the head of a household. The famed Edo period physician, Ogata Kôan, was definitely born into a samurai family and I am fairly certain that Matsumoto Jun, a famous Bakumatsu era physician, also had samurai roots as his father was a clan doctor with samurai roots.

  4. I am not comfortable here any more. You write “Furthermore, I flat out reject your example of a person refusing to help an injured person on the roadside because they would be forcing 義理 on the person they helped” and I tell you an original historical story that you don’t know in order to prove you wrong and your answer is that I babble. Instead of being interested in the fact and appreciating the thought that being a physician has something to do with touching somebody else’s body – not necessarily in the Voodoo-like Chinese tradition that was predominant until the end of the 18th century -, you insult me. I seem to have hit a hidden button. I am out.

    • Long time reader. First time commenter here.

      I don’t want to pick on you, Regisworld, but Marky is absolutely right. You didn’t argue your case very well. You gave the example of Mikimoto Kôkichi who was an adult in the Meiji Era and died in the 1950’s. Are you saying Japanese people didn’t touch sick people until the early Meiji Period? That’s what it sounds like you’re saying to me too.

      Rekishi no Tabi gave clear examples of samurai doctors. Marky gave examples of bakufu doctors and court doctors of the emperor. You addressed none of these.

      You made a pretty big statement on a public forum that ‘giri’ caused people to hesitate helping strangers on the road. Three people expressed a normal amount of scepticism which you failed to address. If you’re going to engage in intellectual discussions on the internet, stay on point, be prepared to take criticism with grace, be prepared to learn new things, and if you really believe you’re correct, be prepared to continue the discussion in good faith, and don’t be uncomfortable if someone mocks a bad idea. From what I gather, this blog mocks a lot of bad ideas and tries to get at the truth of things.

      • Thanks for commenting.

        Also, that’s good advice about having discussions on the Internet. This is a public forum and people will call out ideas if they don’t make sense. (I might also add that there isn’t a lot of nuance on the Internet as compared to a face to face discussion). Having a tough skin is par for the course.

        But as for taking criticism, I’m fully prepared to change my position on any statement I make on this blog if satisfactory evidence can be shown. I like to say that “If I’m wrong, I want to know it.” The reason is simple. I don’t want to go around spouting off things that are incorrect. People have pointed out past mistakes that I’ve made and I’ve changed articles to correct them.

        This thing about 義理 seems pretty out there, tho. It’s also totally at odds with my empirical understanding of 義理 and a common sense understanding of daily life in the Edo Period.

        But if someone where to provide me with the “magic bullet” that proves nobody helped strangers because of 義理 until the 1870’s, I’m willing to change my mind.

      • I still want to know what any of this has to do with what status doctors were???

      • That makes 2 of us! lol

      • So I agreed that Shintō had taboos about unclean spaces and people and that Buddhism reinforced that. Here is an article referencing artwork that shows doctors observing corpses from a distance while other people (presumably outcastes) were doing the actual dissection.

  5. As I thought- the Samurai Archives had the answer and it also confirmed what I believed to be correct. Doctors, in general, as in physicians who treated commoners, did not fit into the strict hierarchical structure– they were outside of it, kind of like Buddhist and Shinto priests. However, it was possible for a member of the samurai class to be a doctor and still be recognized as a samurai.

  6. I am back, trying to make a good case for my statements and to behave gracefully with my gun, loaded with the ‘magic bullet’ Marky Star was asking for.

    In the first place, I want to precise that it is not yet proven that any Japanese coming from a samurai family has ever become a physician. The closest we can get to this assertion is what is mentioned in the following quotation: physicians could become promoted to a samurai-like status. The rest is conjecture so far. And personally I don’t believe there were any samurai-born men who became physicians. It would be totally at odds with everything I have learnt about the Japanese culture under Tokugawa. Touching sick strangers of an inferior social status and taking money for it? No way for anybody with a drop of samurai blood in his veins! Which means that I would firmly bet on the final reservation in the last sentence in footnote #17 below.

    “Rank is quite difficult to ascertain directly from the student register. Since medicine was the center of interest at this time, it is likely that physicians and sons of physicians constituted the vast majority of students. Medicine in Tokugawa Japan was a hereditary profession, but physician possessed a special status and a relative degree of freedom since their place in the social hierarchy was largely undefined (14). The physician was neither samurai, farmer, craftsman, nor merchant, although doctors brought into han service were sometimes promoted to samurai status […] Although it is not possible to estimate the numbers of the various other groups at the school, there are indications that some samurai were there (17).

    (14) In the Buke Shohatto (Laws governing the military classes), physicians were listed under one heading with professors of yin and yang but in legal documents were often grouped with others under the heading “mongai no to” or “those outside society”.
    (17) Twenty-three students made entries in the register that specified they were from “han” or were “kerai”, or “kachû”, which with some justification we may assume to be samurai, though they may also have been physicians attached to the han.”

    Source: ‚Private Academies of the Tokugawa Period‘ by Richard Rubinger, Princeton University Press 2014, page 110.

    As to ‘giri’, I came up with it because it regulated any kind of help and assistance as a built-up of social debts, ESPECIALLY in the case of sickness in combination with physical contact – which is exactly what physicians do and therefore they were outside of the hierarchy of the Japanese society. This is why the average Japanese was horrified if exposed to such a situation like Mikimoto’s and avoided any such contact.

    And here come the magic bullet. We are still in 1878 and Mikimoto’s ‘heroic’ action will be published all over Japan, making him famous:

    „The other travelers did not even turn their heads. It is customary in Japan, even to this day, for no one to go to the aid of an ailing man except his family or the police, because whoever touches a person who has been struck down in an accident or by illness places a debt of gratitude on the unfortunate from that moment on.”

    Source: ‚The Pearl King. The Story of the Fabulous Mikimoto‘ by Robert Eunson, 1956, page 51, chapter ‘Good Samaritan’. Eunson was head of Associated Press Asia in Tokyo from 1950 to 1956.

    • It is clear that doctors in general had a status that was outside the traditional stratification of Tokugawa society. Not sure if you read my above comoments, but it is also clear that there were many doctors from samurai stock and of buke status like Ogata Kôan. Many of those physician families that were assigned to attend to daimyo did attain samurai status over time, as I believe was the case of the Matsumoto family that served the Hotta of Sakura han.

    • Good stuff here. Thank you for the lively discussion and taking the time to actually post full quotes.

      Between you and Rekishi no Tabi and the information at Samurai Archives, I think it’s clear that I should update this article. Like I said in the article itself, I’m not an expert on doctors, but I was sure they fell into a gray area. There’s lots of good stuff to expand on my initial response and I will do that this week or next week.

      I think the Shintō and Buddhist proscriptions against “defilement” need to be brought into the forefront, for sure. The artwork with doctors observing dissections and outcastes handling the bodies was convincing enough. The description of those artworks is clear enough, though. No matter what your rank, the samurai observing dissections were not touching anything. In the case of the art in question, these were cadavers, so naturally that would be left to outcastes. That said, I can definitely imagine the elite not wanting to touch sick people. But a common cold, a sword cut, a mild burn, a broken bone… can we say anything specific about these? I don’t think we can. Well, at least, I can’t so I’m going to consult with a few other people on this subject. I’m suddenly very intrigued by it.

      About footnote 17, it seems the author is unwilling to commit one way or the other, but he did mention the possibility of them being samurai (but as you know “samurai” was a somewhat “fluid” term, particularly in the late Edo Period). But I’ll take this as a fair challenge. And I’m willing to say it adds a lot of nuance to the discussion.

      In all honesty, the only points I think we disagreed on were (1) you said there were absolutely no samurai doctors and (2) people didn’t help sick people because of 義理. To the first point, I say thank you for bringing up some good points. While I’m fairly sure in my gut that the doctors of the imperial court and shogunate must have included some elites, my position has changed from 80-90% to 60-80%. This has inspired me to learn more about the subject and for that I thank you. Awesome! To the second point about 義理, I still don’t buy it. But let’s agree to disagree for the time being and when the discussion comes up again, let’s go at it!

      Once again, thank you for sticking around to have this discussion. Even after I update the article, these comments will stay. The reason is that I believe good conversations sometimes get adversarial, but if the goal is increasing your knowledge or understanding, it’s fine because everyone else who’s reading (whether they comment or not) is learning something along the way too.

      • Thank your for your appreciation. You know, I am not less thrilled than you by the feature of this fundamentally unchristian non-assistance to obviously non-offensive sick or hurt strangers in Japan. And it’s a recent finding of mine. I read the cited passage from “The Pearl King” just two years ago. Imagine how amazed I was! My primary trust in its truthfulness is based on the fact that it is counter-intuitive. It corroborates the idea of a primordial strangeness of Tokugawa culture, not as it has survived in embellishing legends and self-romantizising literature, but in fact. At several stages of my novel I dug deep enough to find something very different about Japanese history and culture than what is related as scientific knowledge today.
        E. g. did you believe that rice was a national staple in Japan? It never was until very recently. Even if Tokugawa government fiercely worked on this myth, hardly any peasant or ordinary townsman had the luck to chew on rice. Basically, it would have been to them as if they were eating money.
        So here is a very recent example of a lost and unattended child that strolled for years in Kabukicho, a red light district in Tokyo that I know well, especially the Goruden Gai part of it:
        I will follow this topic in order to find out more about it, but here as well my guts tell me that it’s true.

  7. Here a much larger evidence for the unfortunate non-assistance syndrome that I had completely overlooked. Yesterday was the 20th anniversary of the sarin attack of Aum in Tokyo underground. Haruki Murakami has investigated the event two years later and published “Underground” including a series of interviews with victims. It’s an excellent book and many a thing therein is hard to stomach. He started this burdensome and difficult enterprise because he was shocked by the observation of what he calls “secondary victimization”. Generally spoken this means it’s not enough that you have suffered from such a terrorist gas attack / atomic bomb / meltdown of a nuclear plant, on top you will be punished for it by society for this event you were unfortunate or silly enough – either way, it doesn’t make a difference – to assist. The sentence is that you are to be shunned, you will have to stay on the outside of society.

  8. Well, since you’re answering questions, I”ve been wondering about some of your older posts, and whether you’d a) write the same things now, b) appreciate criticism on them. I know it isn’t fair to come to a blog and get argumentative about someone’s personal views, particularly stuff that is nearly two years old.

    Your posts on the final resting places of Iemochi and Yoshinobu triggered this question. I got the impression -fairly or unfairly – reading those posts that you were unaware that Yoshinobu was the top man in power for most of Iemochi’s government. So, in one post, you criticize the first Choshu expedition as pointless, then in the next celebrate the governance skills of Yoshinobu, the man who was the originator and prime cheerleader behind both Choshu expeditions.

    Again, if you’re not really interested in revisiting these older posts, and prefer to concentrate on current projects, please forgive my impertinence.

  9. Hi there love your blog! Im working on something and trying to the Kanji for “online” but can only find Network 網 or Direct connection 直結 can you please help? Some say Direct connection is the one but i dont want it to be wrong.

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