10 Famous People From Honjo

Jūnin no Yūmei na Honjokko
(10 famous people from Honjo)

Taishō Era postcard of the memorial for the more 100,000 lives lost in the Great Kantō Earfquake in 1923.
Taishō Era postcard of the “Ireidō” memorial for the more 100,000 lives lost in the Great Kantō Earfquake in 1923. It is located in former Honjo Ward (today Sumida Ward). It was built on the mass grave of the victims. The more than 100,000 victims of the American firebombing in WWII are also enshrined here.
Today’s article isn’t talking about a neighborhood of Tokyo. Today we’re talking about a cross-section of people who lived in the same area over the centuries. Today’s article is celebrating the lives of some remarkable humans.

This is Part Two of an Article I Published the Other Day

If you haven’t read it yet, I highly recommend you read it before this article. This piece should stand on its own, but the 2 articles were actually meant to be a single piece. I decided to split them at the last minute because it was just too long. Click here for the original article. The end of that article has a link that will bring you right back here.

Map of former Honjo Ward, later absorbed into present day Sumida Ward.
Map of former Honjo Ward, later absorbed into present day Sumida Ward.

We Left Off at “So, Why Should I be Interested in this Area?”

Thank you for asking that question. I had prepared 9 answers for you, but named the article 10 Famous People from Honjo because… who’s really counting? I know I’m not[i].

There are quite a few famous people from Honjo. I’ve put together a short list that I think typifies the wide range of people who at some point called Honjo their 地元 jimoto hometown or were at least associated with the place. Rather than using place names, I’ve decided to try something new. Let’s look at the people who lived here and explore the changing face of Honjo through them. Might work. Might not work. But you never know until you try, right?

Oh yeah, one more thing. During the Edo Period there many place names that broadly referred to large areas. The generalizations of Tokugawa controlled Edo don’t always reflect those of modern Tōkyō Metropolis today.

Prior to the Meiji Period, 本所 Honjo referred to a large area – much of which isn’t designated as Honjo today. In earlier articles we’ve talked about places like 向島 Mukōjima, some of which was considered Honjo in the Edo Period. Think of Honjo as a region without borders. People in Deerfield, Illinois will tell you that they are from Chicago – they’re not officially, but close enough. People from New Jersey who live close to NYC will say they’re from NYC – they’re not officially. In both cases, most people sort of go with the flow. A lot of areas in Edo-Tōkyō are like those places.

In the Meiji Period, there was a 本所区 Honjo-ku Honjo Ward. Later, this ward would be broken up and part was merged with 浅草区 Asakusa-ku Asakusa Ward to form present day 墨田区 Sumida-ku Sumida Ward.

Alright. Enough about all of that crap. Are you ready to strap in and feel the G’s, baby? This is going to be looooong.

Famous People Associated with Honjo

(mother of the 5th Shōgun, Tokugawa Tsunayoshi)

Keishō-in is the Buddhist name awarded to お玉の方 O-tama no Kata[ii] after she retired. Details on her early life are scarce, but it seems she was born in 京都 Kyōto to a commoner family – greengrocers, to be specific. At some point, she was adopted into the 本庄家 Honjō-ke Honjō family who were retainers of a 公家 kuge court noble family in Kyōto. The family established a residence in Edo because of their connections with the Tokugawa.  It’s said O-tama lived with the Honjō in a modest residence in Honjo. The location of the residence was next to the present day 旧安田庭園 Kyū-Yasuda Tei-en Former Yasuda Gardens – itself the former estate of 本庄 宗資 Honjō Munesuke. Don’t worry. I’m going to talk about both the gardens and Munesuke eventually.

Anyhoo, O-tama soon joined the 大奥 Ōoku shōgun’s harem[iii] in Edo Castle and became a 側室 sokushitsu concubine of the 3rd shōgun, 徳川家光 Tokugawa Iemitsu. She produced 2 sons, both of whom would later be elevated to shōgun: 4th shōgun 徳川家綱 Tokugawa Ietsuna and 5th shōgun 徳川綱吉 Tokugawa Tsunayoshi.

(L) Keishō-in's grave in the ruins of Zōjō-ji in the 1950's. (R) Keishō-in's grave today in Sayama Fudōson.
(L) Keishō-in’s grave in the ruins of Zōjō-ji in the 1950’s. (R) Keishō-in’s grave today in Sayama Fudōson.

An interesting side note related to my series on the graves of the Tokugawa shōguns; although both brothers, Ietsuna & Tsunayoshi, were interred in adjacent mausolea at 寛永寺 Kan’ei-ji in 上野 Ueno, their mother was interred at 増上寺 Zōjō-ji in 芝 Shiba. When Zōjō-ji was burnt to the ground in WWII[iv], all the graves became overgrown with trees and weeds. In the 1950’s, Zōjō-ji had recovered financially by selling off much of its real estate. Then they reorganized the temple precincts. They consolidated the shōguns’ graves into a single graveyard and shipped off “superfluous” graves and structures. Keishō-in’s grave was moved to 狭山不動尊 Sayama Fudōson, a temple in 埼玉県 Saitama-ken Saitama Prefecture[v].

Wanna Read More?

Honjō Munesuke

(first daimyō of Ashikaga Domain)
This is the location of Ashikaga Domain's Upper Residence
This is the location of Ashikaga Domain’s Upper Residence

OK, so I promised to explain this one. To be perfectly honest, I’d never heard of this dude before but as I said before, the Honjō family was originally from Kyōto and had close ties with both the imperial court and the Tokugawa. Their adopted daughter, O-tama (later Keishō-in), was not just the mother of one, but two shōguns – not to mention she was the concubine of Tokugawa Iemitsu who was considered a cultured shōgun with martial savoir-faire[vi]. As a result, the status of the Honjō family skyrocketed within the shōgunate. Munesuke was Keishō-in’s step-brother. He also served under Tsunayoshi when he was lord of 館林藩 Tatebayashi Han Tatebayashi Domain. Needless to say, he was a very influential guy and very well connected.

If you get fast tracked by Tsunayoshi, you're probably having sex with him... or so I've heard.
If you get fast tracked by Tsunayoshi, you’re probably having sex with him… or so I’ve heard.

After becoming shōgun in 1680, Tsunayoshi elevated Munesuke to hatamoto status[vii]. Not long after that, he elevated him to 譜代大名 fudai daimyō hereditary daimyō status and gave him control of newly created 下野国足利藩 Shimotsuke no Kuni Ashikaga Han Ashikaga Domain, Shimotsuke Province. This new status required an appropriate 屋敷 yashiki mansion and so the shōgunate granted him a large swath of land in Honjō adjacent to the residence where his mother had grown up. He also received the courtly title of 因幡守 Inaba no Suke Protector of Inaba Province[viii].

By the way, there is an alternative etymology of 本所 Honjo the place that says it derives from 本庄 Honjō the family having their residence here. It’s not true. The place pre-dates Honjō Munesuke’s elevation to daimyō and the construction of his upper residence here. Also, there were other daimyō in the region for years before the construction of the Honjō family palace. Any connection between Honjō and Honjo is pure folk etymology.

Wanna Read More Later?

Kira Yoshihisa

(the “bad guy” in the 47 Rōnin stories)
Kira Kozuke no Suke
Kira Kozuke no Suke

Kira Yoshihisa[ix], better known as 吉良上野介 Kira Kōzuke no Suke lived in the area. Long time readers should recognize him as both the so-called “bad guy” of the 47 Rōnin stories and as a descendent o f吉良頼康 Kira Yoriyasu[x]. Yoriyasu was a local strongman whose family held various swaths of the Kantō plain until the 後北条家 Go-Hōjō-ke Late Hōjō clan began taking control of the area by force[xi]. Kira Yoriyasu served the early Hōjō lords as a general helped them take Edo Castle from the 上杉家 Uesugi-ke Uesugi clan in 1524[xii]. As a thank you, he was granted a large fief centered at 世田ヶ谷城 Setagaya-jō Setagaya Castle. When Tokugawa Ieyasu moved to Edo, all of the petty strongmen were required to submit to him. The Kira clan submitted, accepted hatamoto status, and the 本家 honke main branch of the family relocated to Honjo.

The story of the 47 Rōnin is so messed up that I don’t want to get into it here (my usual excuse), so if you want to read more about the event, I refer you to this excellent article at Samurai Archives (also my usual excuse).

That said, you can still visit the 吉良邸跡 Kira Yashiki-ato Ruins of the Kira Residence in nearby 両国 Ryōgoku. The remains of the estate are preserved as a park that roughly gives you the idea of how big a hatamoto estate was.

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Katsushika Hokusai
(one of the greatest ukiyo-e artists of all time)
春画 (shunga), literally
春画 (shunga), literally “spring pictures,” were the Chaturbate of the Edo Period.

In the art world, Hokusai is one of those guys who loom large[xiii]. Way large. Even if you don’t like his art, you’ve probably seen it at some point or another. And even if you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably seen art influenced by him. While Japanese art has had influences globally, few people are as iconic as Hokusai.

He was born around 1760 in 武蔵国葛飾郡本所 Musashi no Kuni Katsushika-gun Honjo Honjo, Katsushika District, Musashi Province, hence the name Katsushika. However, the specifics of his family name are not certain[xiv]. And although he was born into the artisan class, he claimed his mother had been the grand-daughter of a retainer of Kira Kōzuke no Suke which meant he had some good ol’ Honjo samurai blood running through his veins. Unfortunately, his mother and a lot of things regarding his early family life are unclear and filled with speculation.

What’s known for sure is that Hokusai was hailed as a 天才 tensai genius in his own day and art historians today clearly revere him as one of the greatest 浮世絵師 ukiyoeshi ukiyo-e painters of the Edo Period[xv]. He is perhaps best known for his series 富嶽三十六景 Fugaku Sanjūrokkei Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji which was born out of Hokusai’s obsession with 富士山 Fuji-san Mt. Fuji. Of the 36 woodblock prints, the most famous is probably 神奈川沖浪裏 Kanagawa Oki Nami Ura The Great Wave Off Kanagawa.

If you don't know this painting... oh, who am I kidding? Everybody knows this one.
If you don’t know this painting… oh, who am I kidding? Everybody knows this one.
The golden ratio (golden mean) - one of the most boring controversies of the art world since 1509™
The golden ratio (golden mean) – one of the most boring controversies of the art world since 1509™

Fans of JapanThis! and the #TeamIenari esthetic probably have a particular print that they prefer. That print would be 蛸と海女 Tako to Ama which is usually translated as the Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife, but literally means Octopus and Shell Diver[xvi]. This is the famous image of a woman having a threesome with 2 octopodes[xvii]; one is making out with her while the other licks her pussy. Tentacles are everywhere, because octopodes are really grabby like that.

If you had 8 arms, you'd be grabby too.
If you had 8 arms, you’d be grabby too.

The picture is quite controversial today as some uptight people associate it with modern tentacle porn. Tentacle porn was a thing in 漫画 manga and アニメ anime for a while, though to be honest I think it got played out 15 years ago or so[xviii]. But the modern incarnation of the genre was pretty fucking rapey. That said, the woman is clearly getting off judging by her position and facial expressions. The octopodes are harder to read visually because… they’re fucking octopodes. But fortunately for us, Hokusai’s print includes a lot of text which describes the scene[xix]. The daddy octopus, the son octopus, and the female shell diver are all waaaaaay into this threesome. So, by the artist’s own description it’s fully consensual. Awwwww yeah!

OK, maybe this is a good place to move on to the next topic...
OK, maybe this is a good time to move on to the next topic…


Katsu Kaishū

(hatamoto, father of the Japanese navy, teacher, visionary)
Katsu Kaishū in San Francisco posing like a straight up pimp.
Katsu Kaishū in San Francisco posing like a straight up pimp.

In 1823, Katsu Kaishū was born in 江戸本所亀沢町 Edo Honjo Kamezawa-chō Kamezawa-chō, Honjo, Edo. To the best of my knowledge – and I could be totally wrong here – this part of Honjo was part of the shōgun’s capital which stands in contrast to the area where Hokusai lived, which was technically not part of Edo, but of the Katsushika District.

I’ve talked about Katsu Kaishū so many times on JapanThis! that I just recommend searching the site for him if you don’t know who he is. Samurai Archives has a concise biography if you just want something quick. Wikipedia has a decent article about him if you want to go deeper. There are plenty of books, including Samurai Revolution, that go into his life and times in great detail.

Katsu Kaishu standing in front of the walls of Edo Castle
Katsu Kaishu standing in front of the walls of Edo Castle

To reduce a man so illustrious that there are hundreds of biographies about his life into one paragraph, he was born into an impoverished hatamoto family[xx], but was obsessed with learning about the world outside of Japan and Japan’s place in that world. He supposedly taught himself Dutch in order to read foreign books – in particular military books and naval books. He came to the attention of the shōgunate by making the bold assertion that ability and motivation rather than birthright ought to be used a basis for promoting men to important positions. This was when Japan was caught with her proverbial panties down by Commodore Perry and his 黒船 Kurofune Black Ships and a crisis ensued. He insisted that a Navy would be necessary to defend the country against foreign invaders who were taking advantage of (and at times colonizing) weaker Asian kingdoms.

Halloween is just around the corner. This is how you make the Katsu Kaishū hairdo.
Halloween is just around the corner. This is how you make the Katsu Kaishū hairdo.

He helped establish Japan’s first navy. He helped preserve the Tokugawa family. He helped save Edo from being burnt to the ground by the hostile Satsuma-Chōshū Alliance that was hell-bent on overthrowing the Tokugawa hegemony. He negotiated the peaceful transfer of the city during the Meiji Coup. And on top of all that, he had great hair. Just go back and look at those pictures. Great hair.

Wanna Read More?

Enomoto Takeaki

(President of the Ezo Republic)
The fitted suit didn't come about for another 50-100 years. But still, that moustache. lololol.
The fitted suit didn’t come about for another 10-15 years, so give him some slack. But still, that moustache lololololol

Enomoto Takeaki is an interesting character during the Bakumatsu. He was born in 1836 to a low ranking hatamoto family in 江江戸下谷御徒町 Edo Shitaya Okachi-machi Okachimachi, Shitaya in Edo.

Anyways, despite his low rank, he was a smart, forward thinking dude who eventually earned himself the title of 海軍中将 Kaigun Chūjō Vice Admiral in the shōgunate’s navy. Like Katsu Kaishū, he learned Dutch and was fascinated by the world outside of Japan. Also, like Katsu Kaishū, he supported the shōgunate’s progressive efforts to modernize and take on foreign learning. Unlike Katsu Kaishū, however, he would actually tell the treasonous “Imperial Army” to go fuck itself by stealing a fleet of ships and starting a country of his own. Say what you will about him, but Takeaki had balls, yo.

Big balls. We're coming back to this topic in a minute.
Big balls. We’re coming back to this topic in a minute.

From 1862 to 1867, he studied abroad in Europe and focused on learning western military strategies and technologies. In particular, Takeaki was interested in western naval warfare. It’s said he became fluent in both Dutch and English. He also developed a taste for western uniforms and fashion. He also realized the importance of the telegraph for long distance communication and he pushed for this technology to be used in Edo.

However, in his years abroad, Enomoto Takeaki had acquired a few tastes that were too progressive for some of the conservative asshats from Satsuma and Chōshū who were trying to overthrow the Tokugawa.  He eschewed traditional Japanese clothes for western suits and military uniforms. He also began sporting a pretty ridiculous western-style moustache. This cluster of facial hair would soon take on a life of its own in his later years, eventually resulting in a Netflix special of its own.

OK, I made that last bit up. But, at any rate, that’s a story for a blog about moustaches – not Japanese history.

Epic Moustaches and Hair of the Meiji Period – soon to debut on Netflix.

After returning to Japan, he was appointed vice admiral of the navy – which was a cool gig to have at the time. Who doesn’t want to be second in command of the navy? However, part of Katsu Kaishū’s deal for the peaceful surrender of Edo Castle and Edo itself to the newly self-appointed “Imperial Army” was the handing over of all shōgunal maritime assets to the imperial army. And, just for the record, Katsu Kaishū was 海軍奉行 Kaigun Bugyō – ie; first in command of the navy. Takeaki wasn’t having this surrender bullshit at all so… he stole an entire naval fleet – the shōgunate’s eight best warships – and took it northwards to an area called 蝦夷地 Ezo-chi the Ezo Lands[xxi] at the time. Yes, you read that correctly. He hijacked the premiere flotilla in Asia, leaving the recently dissolved shōgunate and the barely legitimate imperial army scratching their heads.

Seriously. Let that sink in.

So, WTF was Ezo-chi?

To the average Japanese at the time, Ezo-chi referred to “the barbarian islands” north of 本州 Honshū the main island of Japan – present day 北海道 Hokkaidō[xxii] and a few associated island chains. Enomoto Takeaki’s liberal European views shone through when he declared the island a sovereign territory separate from the questionable, new “imperial state” being established by the Satsuma-Chōshū terrorists.

Up to this point, a Japanese fief had existed on the south west peninsulas of the island (present-day Hokkaidō). It was called 松前藩 Matusmae Han Matsumae Domain. The rest of Ezo-chi was “undefined land” inhabited by the アイヌ Ainu whom the Japanese from Honshū held in low regard, much as Ancient Romans viewed non-civilized barbarians on the periphery of their empire.

Matsumae Castle marked the limit of Tokugawa authority. They were the northernmost boundary of the shōgunate.
Matsumae Castle marked the northern limit of Tokugawa authority.

Takeaki established a headquarters at the port of 函館 Hakodate. Among his rag-tag team of pro-shōgunate samurai and foreign advisors was a certain 土方歳三 Hijikata Toshizō, the 旧副局長 kyū-Fuku-Kyokuchō former vice commander of the 新撰組 Shinsengumi[xxiii] and all an around bad ass. Since they were establishing a new, modern country, they needed a government and so developed a tentative organizational model and then did something that had never happened before in Japan: they held a general election. From this moment, this island became 蝦夷共和国 Ezo Kyōwakoku the Ezo Republic[xxiv].

The government hall of the Ezo Republic.
The government hall of the Ezo Republic.

The election is a pretty amazing political milestone in Japanese History. The results are also interesting: Enomoto Takeaki became the first and last 蝦夷島総裁 Ezoshima Sōsai President of the Ezo Islands. Hijikata Toshizō was elected the first and last 陸軍奉行 Rikugun Bugyō a term which literally means “Military Magistrate,” but in a republic that relied on military power out of necessity you can think of this as “Vice President.” Only men of samurai rank could vote – ie; the military[xxv].  It wasn’t an all free persons can vote thing, but for the first time in Japanese history, a general election happened!

The Ezo Republic was defeated by the imperial army in about 5 months. Takeaki had claimed the entire island of Hokkaidō as Ezo[xxvi] so after the victory, the Meiji Government annexed the Republic of Ezo. This was one of the first imperialist land grabs of the new Meiji Government. Modern Japan had acquired a whole new island – not a tiny island but a huge, beautiful island with untold agricultural potential. Oh, and Hijikata Toshizō died at 函館戦争 Hakodate Sensō the Battle of Hakodate. Legend says he led a charge on horseback against the imperial rebels and was shot dead within the first few minutes of fighting. His body was hidden from the enemy by loyalists and shortly thereafter the defenders of the Tokugawa turned defenders of Ezo dispersed and eventually surrendered.

flag of the Ezo republic
flag of the Ezo republic

Meanwhile Back In Edo

Sorry about the Ezo tangent. So. let’s get back to Honjo.

After the collapse of the shōgunate, Edoites held the uncouth and culturally unsophisticated ex-samurai[xxvii] from southwestern Japan in contempt. Imagine if a bunch of rich people from Missouri and Kansas overthrew the government of New York City and made themselves the new leaders. It’s not a perfect analogy, but I think you can figure out that the native New Yorkers would feel they were culturally superior to the outsiders who claimed dominion over them. After all, these outsiders didn’t know the nuances of the city, the etiquette, or the history. They had overthrown a nearly 250 year old system that put them at the epicenter of Japanese culture for generations. Suddenly, they felt, their world had been turned upside down[xxviii]. The barbarians had broken the gates and flooded Edo, the heretofore unconquerable citadel.

If the stories are to be believed, the Edoites considered their new 田舎侍 inaka-zamurai country samurai masters as bad as – if not worse than – the tiny groups of foreigners (mostly business people, diplomats, teachers, and missionaries[xxix]) who had been making inroads into the country before the Meiji Coup. Again, if stories are to be believed, the Satsuma samurai were considered the most brutish and uncultured of their new overlords and the so-called Children of Edo despised them and their lack of sophistication.

Edoites Were Pissed Off, I Get It.
What about Enomoto Takeaki?

After the Meiji Coup, Takeaki was arrested and thrown in jail for high treason. His military prowess and charisma were well known and so as the Meiji Government tried to make reconciliation with the former Tokugawa supporters it became apparent that he should be released from prison. He was then given a newly created position within the Imperial Navy. At some point in his later years, Takeaki bought an estate in 向島 Mukōjima. People often said they saw him riding his horse along the banks of the Sumida River[xxx]. He loved his native Edo, now Tōkyō, and he loved the water – be it the beautiful bay and ocean or the life-giving waters of the rivers of Edo-Tōkyō.


牛嶋学校 Ushima Gakkō Ushima School was established in 1873 (Meiji 6) and was one of the first public schools in the area. In 1881 (Meiji 14), the school was relocated to the location of the present day 本所高校 Honjo Kōkō Honjo High School. The school possesses a 扁額 hengaku a kind of sign that decorates an entrance. Traditionally, hengaku are copies of handwritten 書道 shodō calligraphy which is written by brush then made into wooden plaques[xxxi]. Local legend insists that this sign was written by Enomoto Takeaki himself in 1873 (Meiji 6) to give endorsement to the school. The people of Honjo inferred that Takeaki hoped to instill the spirit of Edo in the new generation of children (who were now children of Tōkyō not children of Edo). He was a symbol of Edo and a symbol of modernity – and most of all, he wasn’t from Satsuma or Chōshū. This is a sentiment I can completely understand.

Takeaki's calligraphy
Takeaki’s calligraphy

He continued to serve in military and government rules for the rest of his life until he died at his home in Mukōjima in 1908 (Meiji 41).

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Yasuda Zenjirō

(founder of the Yasuda Zaibatsu)
People in the 1800's found out some ways make beards creepy and the Japanese copied them.
People in the 1800’s found out some ways make beards creepy and the Japanese copied them with zeal.

Yasuda Zenjirō was born a low ranking samurai in 1838 越中国富山藩 Ecchū no Kuni Toyama Han Toyama Domain, Ecchū Province. As a teenager he moved to Edo and worked in money changing and later tax consulting to rich farmers – something I never knew existed in the Edo Period.

He was 17 years old when he moved to Edo and began working in a money changing house. In 1863, became an outsourced tax collector of the shōgunate[xxxii]. This made him a rich man and gave him a network that included the richest commoners and poorest (yet most powerful) daimyō.

After the Meiji Coup, he established a western style bank. This gave him the power to set up the Yasuda Bank (later known as the Fuji Bank) in the 1880’s. His clients formed a fully-consolidated network focused on the emerging market of small and medium-sized businesses (what the kids call SME’s today). By the late 1800’s he had created a 財閥 zaibatsu[xxxiii] of his very own that he could love and cherish like a precious bunny rabbit.

That would be part of his group...
That would be part of his group…

Call Back. Say Whaaa?

Earlier, I wrote about Keishō-in (the 5th shōgun’s mother) and the Honjō clan (the samurai family that adopted her and brought her to the Honjo area). Time to bring these elements of the local history back to whatever kind of kind of fucked up narrative I’m telling.

Zenjirō was one of the richest men of his time. When the daimyō all moved out of Honjo, he moved in. He bought the former 本庄 Honjō estate which included a large garden. We’re lucky today because Zenjirō’s version of the garden is still preserved as a park[xxxiv] and is known by the name 旧安田庭園 Kyū-Yasuda Tei-en Former Yasuda Gardens[xxxv].

yasuda honjo nice

As Tōkyō pushed for industrialization, the Sumida River area became a filthy, polluted area. The emergent middle class got the fuck out of the area to avoid flooding and the pestilence that followed. Socially stigmatized people were trapped in the flood plains. Traditional families who couldn’t afford a move to leave were truly stuck there. Despite the exodus of – I dare say complete abandonment by – the wealthy, Yasuda Zenjirō stayed in the area. And though he was of samurai stock, he did have humble origins so maybe he felt a connection to these proud, hardworking locals whom he employed. Their perseverance and his leadership skill made him a very, very rich man. That all afforded him an amazing piece of real estate with a former daimyō garden and a history tied to the shōguns. Who would give that up?

He lived among the low city people and depended on them for the development of his financial empire. I don’t know much about his personality, but apparently he pissed off a lot of rich people. He also pissed off a lot of the rising militarists/imperialists born after the Meiji Coup. Sadly, this actually resulted in his final demise. In 1921, he was assassinated in Honjo by an 右翼 uyoku ultra-nationalist/ultra-conservative terrorist[xxxvi].

The financial empire he created survived him until the end of WWII and though it’s fragmented now, huge companies that were spun off from his group survive to this day.

Floody It was really floody.
It was really floody.

The Family Has a UK/US Connection

Yasuda Zenjirō was the great-grandfather of Yoko Ono[xxxvii], widow of John Lennon. She’s an artist hated by Boomer Beatles fans (they blame her for the band’s break up). Yoko Ono – no matter what your parents think of her – has been a powerful force in the world of art to this very day.

John Lennon & Yoko Ono

Anyways, she told a story once that upon seeing Zenjirō’s photograph for the first time, John Lennon said “That’s me in a former life.” They were hippies at the time and believed in re-incarnation and other stupid shit[xxxviii] so this comment actually bothered Yoko a lot. She told him “Don’t say that. He was assassinated.” Years later, John Lennon himself was assassinated in front of their home in the Upper West Side of New York City on December 8th, 1980.

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Akutagawa Ryūnosuke

(Meiji Era author)
Akutagawa Ryonosuke in a kimono

Just when you thought it was dark, it’s about to get a whole lot darker.

Ryūnosuke was born in 1890 (Meiji 23) and raised in Honjo[xxxix]. He was a writer – in particular, he was a novelist of a new sort that emerged after the Meiji Coup. He apparently loved English literature and even worked as an English teacher for a short time. However, he was an 江戸っ子 Edokko a child of Edo[xl] through and through. In his personal life, he surrounded himself with other Edokko. He was talented enough that he was eventually taken under the wing of one of his idols, 夏目漱石 Natsume Sōseki, the guy who wrote 吾輩ハ猫デアル Wagahai wa Neko de Aru I Am a Cat[xli]. In the west, Soseki’s cat book is very famous, but Ryūnosuke’s stories are a little more obscure.

In my first article, I mentioned that in the early 1900’s the abandoned samurai estates were overtaken by trees and weeds. Wild animals took refuge there. Men who had lost their savings, women who had been scorned by their families or lovers, and other despondent people used the overgrown plots of land as places to commit suicide by hanging. It was so frequent that it was said to be a daily occurrence.

That story actually comes to us from Akutagawa Ryūnosuke. His father and other Honjo locals told these stories to him. I have no reason to doubt them either. Other areas of Tōkyō[xlii] descended into the same chaos after the Meiji Coup.

Akutagawa Ryunosuke's bad hair day
“I totally should have combed my hair before this photo shoot.”

The saddest part of this whole story is that Akutagawa Ryūnosuke couldn’t endure his own life. His art was respected by his idols. It was respected by his peers. To this day, he is considered one of modern Japan’s greatest writers. However he suffered from serious depression, a condition romanticized by many cultures until quite recently. His feelings of isolation and despair finally got the best of him. Just like the stories he heard of his hopeless Honjo neighbors after the cataclysm Edo-Tōkyō suffered in the wake of the 1868 Meiji Coup, he took his own life in 1927 (Shōwa 2) at the age of 35.

For what it’s worth, Akutagawa Ryūnosuke lives on. He is regarded as the “Father of the Japanese Short Story” and Japan’s premier literary award is named after him. It’s called 芥川龍之介賞 Akutagawa Ryūnosuke-shō the Akutagawa Prize. The winner walks away with a new watch, a million yen[xliii], and instant national media attention.

A Meiji/Taishō Era watch
A Meiji/Taishō Era watch
Ō Sadaharu
(record setting baseball player and manager)

As some of you may know, baseball was brought to Japan in 1872 (Meiji 5) and is the most popular sport in the country. Even high school baseball gets a lot of attention with the 夏の甲子園 Natsu no Kōshi-en Summer Kōshien[xliv], a high profile yearly summer high school tournament. This competition is where the Japanese get their first peak at the next generation of those who play with their balls professionally.

Oh Sadaharu Tokyo Giants

Japan consistently performs within the top 5 teams of international baseball. At the time of writing, they’re ranked #1 by the International Baseball Federation, followed by the United States, Cuba, Chinese Taipei (Tawain), and the Netherlands. The Japanese professional leagues are highly competitive and in recent years have been providing top tier players for Major League Baseball in the US. Players like 田口壮 Taguchi Sō, 松井秀喜 Matsui Hideki, and 鈴木一朗 Suzuki Ichirō immediately come to mind.

The rivalry between the Tokyo Giants in Tōkyō and the Hanshin Tigers in Ōsaka is legendary. Actually, the rivalry between the Giants and basically every other team in Japan is legendary. The Giants are an interesting phenomenon: you either love them or you hate them. There’s no gray area. It’s into this team’s epic 81 year history where most of Sadaharu’s story takes place. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves just yet.

Ō Sadaharu was born in Honjo to a Taiwanese father and a Japanese mother. In foreign publications, his family name is generally transcribed as 王 Oh. This convention is a relic of the age where newspaper print setters and computer manufacturers couldn’t be bothered with differentiating Japanese /o/ and オー // with diacritics. So, in English this guy is usually called Sadaharu Oh (first name/last name reversed in the western style). But that’s just lazy, in my opinion. He’s Ō Sadaharu on JapanThis! because… screw that “H.” Nobody needs it. By the way, in Mandarin his name is read Wáng Zhēnzhì and I have no idea how to pronounce that correctly. And neither does he. Despite his Chinese citizenship, supposedly he doesn’t speak Chinese.

Check out dat chipped toof

Sadaharu played first base 22 seasons from 1959-1980 for the Tōkyō Giants based out of the former 後楽園球場 Kōraku-en Kyūjō Kōrakuen Stadium, predecessor of today’s 東京ドーム Tōkyō Dōmu Tōkyō Dome. In that time he set the lifetime home-run record by knocking out an incredible 868 home-runs and led the team to 11 championships. He was voted MVP of セントラルリーグ Sentararu Rīgu the Central League a whopping nine times! Then, from 1984-1988 he served as Manager of the Giants. Under his leadership, the Giants clinched the Central League pennant in 1987.

korkakuen stadium

He was inducted into the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame in 1994 and returned to the game in 1995 to manage the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks[xlv]. The Hawks took 3 Pacific League pennants under his management and they won the Japan Series twice. In 2008, he became the General Manager of the Hawks.

In 2006, Sadaharu became the coach of 侍ジャパン Samurai Japan, the Japanese national team, during the first World Baseball Classic (WBC) where his team won the championship by defeating Cuba 10-6 in the final game.

The Dude Has 2 Other Claims to Fame

First, he was so famous all over the world[xlvi] that he was even memorialized in the lyrics of the Beastie Boys’ 1989 single Hey Ladies! The line goes “there’s more to me than you’ll ever know / and I’ve got more hits than Sadaharu Oh” which occurs within the first 4 lines of the track.

The other claim is of a more dubious nature. His single-season home run record clocked in at #2 on ESPN’s Phoniest Records in Sports list. It’s not that he was on ‘rhoids or all out cheating to get his home-run record, it’s that when foreign challengers in the Nippon Professional Baseball popped up, so did a little controversy. It seems Manager Ō and Co. deliberately tried to protect his record by some fairly obvious and unsportsmanlike plays. This link explains the controversy in detail, but some American baseball commentators and an actual columnist from the Yomiuri Daily News (the company that owns the Giants) have stated that Sadaharu’s record should recognized but it needs an asterisk to show that fair play been thrown out the window. There are many indications that there was also a strong desire to keep the record from being broken by a stinky foreigner.

In the end, it doesn’t matter because in 2013 Sadaharu’s single season home run record was finally broken – by a stinky foreigner, no less. Wladimir Ramon Balentien, an outfielder for the Yakult Swallows[xlvii], hit 60 home runs beating Ō’s 55. Incidentally, this record wasn’t without controversy either. This time, rather than blocking foreigners from breaking the record, Nippon Professional Baseball had actually issued new balls that were “livelier.” The new balls resulted in increased home runs overall – presumably a tactic to increase interest and revenues overall in the sport. Oh well, at least his record breaking 56th and 57th homers were against the Hanshin Tigers.

Let’s Go Giants!!!

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[i] And the internet loves lists of 5, 10, 20, etc… apparently.
[ii] Her given name was お玉 O-tama or just 玉 Tama (to her superiors). The ending の方 (something) no kata was a title used in the 大奥 Ōoku shōgun’s harem at Edo Castle.
[iii] Bow chicka bow bow♪
[iv] Kan’ei-ji was also completely destroyed in WWII.
[v] A few beautiful treasures from the resplendent mausoleum of the 2nd shōgun 徳川秀忠 Tokugawa Hidetada and his wife were also moved to this temple. Additionally, many people believe that Keishō-in’s grave is at 護国寺 Gokoku-ji, a temple located in 大塚 Ōtsuka. This isn’t true. Tokugawa Tsunayoshi and Yanagisawa Yoshiyasu built the original temple on the site to honor her, but her remains are in Saitama. Interestingly, her hair went back to Kyōto – presumably so her birth family could honor her. Incidentally, there is a grave for 38 Tokugawa women in the Tokugawa Cemetery at Zōjō-ji. Keishō-in is also enshrined there.
[vi] Reputation only. Who knows how long he’d last on a Sengoku Period battlefield?
[vii] Given Tsunayoshi’s past, one wonders if they were fucking
[viii] The title is strictly ceremonial. No one controlled the provinces in the Edo Period. They were a just traditional way to refer to large areas of the country.
[ix] His name was read Yoshihisa in his time, but because his kanji are ambiguous the more common Yoshinaka has been used for years and years. This is why I tend to use his courtly title instead of his name. His courtly title is much more widely known than Yoshihisa or Yoshinaka.
[x] Yoriyasu’s story is mentioned in my article on Setagaya and its Freaky Horse Fetish.
[xi] Please see my friends at Samurai Archives for more info on the Late Hōjō.
[xii] Uesugi clan, holla!! Again, see my friends at Samurai Archives.
[xiii] By the way, if you haven’t studied Japanese, the closest way to say his name correctly is dropping the “u” and just calling him Hōk’sai. Close enough.
[xiv] His grave actually says 河村 Kawamura.
[xv] Of course, I love his work, but my personal favorite is 歌川広重 Utagawa Hiroshige. Unfortunately, he was born in another part of Edo, so there will be no epic ukiyo-e battle this time.
[xvi] This work was only done by women and the kanji for the word clearly reflect this: 海女 ama sea girl. Both English translations fail miserably. Keep in mind, the original never had a title.
[xvii] Just for the record, octopi is not the plural of octopus. It’s a Greek, not Latin word. Even octopuses, which sounds stupid, is more correct that octopi. #TheMoreYouKnow
[xviii] I really haven’t seen it since then. But, it’s not really my cup of tea anyways. I don’t really read manga or watch anime.
[xix] If you’re curious about the text of this iconic bestiality-centered threesome, read a translation of it here.
[xx] His father 勝子吉 Katsu Kokichi is probably one of the most hilarious samurai who ever lived. There’s an English transition of his autobiography. He’s basically the opposite of what a samurai was held up to be in his day. His autobiography is essentially this: “I’ve been a bad samurai. I’ve made a lot of mistakes. But goddamn, it was so much fucking fun!!!!” Then he passes on headship of the family to his 15 year old son, Katsu Kaishū.
[xxi] The kanji  蝦夷 can be read as Emishi or Ezo and literally means “crustacean barbarians.” This was an unflattering term used by the early Yamato people to refer to indigenous peoples of Japan.
[xxii] Never mind that the area was already home to the アイヌ Ainu. Since the 1300’s the area of 函館 Hakodate was controlled by the 松前氏 Matsumae-shi Matsumae family. The domain was called 松前藩 Matsumae Han Matsumae Domain. During the Bakumatsu, Sakamoto Ryōma wanted to expand his business to Ezochi. His wife was even learning the Ainu language to help in this effort. Ryōma strongly advocated doing business with the Ainu and bringing them into the fold of a modern Japanese state. His thinking was that Hokkaidō, being a huge land mass, could help provide a buffer against the Russians. Imperial Japan agreed with this and annexed the territory and began colonizing in 1869.
[xxiii] Who are the Shinsengumi?
[xxiv] The imperial government, on the other hand, would call itself 大日本帝国 Dai-Nihon Teikoku the Empire of Greater Japan because they had no intention on given up Takeaki’s land grab in Hokkaidō or Satsuma’s tributary state, 沖縄 Okinawa.
[xxv] Again, this is a time of transition. The idea of a military (in the modern sense) and a warrior (as a social caste) were in a state of flux.
[xxvi] Pretty sure he didn’t ask the Ainu for their thoughts on the matter.
[xxvii] In their opinion.
[xxviii] In reality, for the average person on the street life went on as usual and slowly but surely things began to change. But initially there was definitely deep resentment among Edoites towards the Satsuma and Chōshū influx into Edo (which had become 東京 Tōkyō in 1868).
[xxix] Surely the missionaries were annoying as shit. lol.
[xxx] This is the same “western behavior” that is alleged to have prompted anti-shōgunate samurai assassinate Henry Heusken.
[xxxi] This is the same process used to make the signs that marked the entrance to the funerary temples of the Tokugawa shōguns. These were called 勅額門 chokugaku mon imperial scroll gates. An emperor wrote the posthumous name of the shōgun in calligraphy and it was transferred to a wooden plaque and decorated.
[xxxii] I’ll be completely honest, I don’t know what this means. But my gut instinct tells me that he was a glorified bill collector with a sword.
[xxxiii] Business and Finance are really boring for me. But if you want to learn more about zaibatsu, read this.
[xxxiv] The park is very different from the daimyō residence’s garden. Still, it’s a splendid Japanese garden.
[xxxv] Here’s more info about the park. They don’t appear to have an official English website.
[xxxvi] The assassin, 朝日平吾 Asahi Heigo, upon being learning he had been found out, sliced his own neck with a razor and died.
[xxxvii] I always keep Japanese as family name first and given name last. However Yoko Ono is mostly known by her westernized name. I’ve also chosen to not use diacritics for the same reason. But if you care, her name in Japanese is 小野洋子 Ono Yōko.
[xxxviii] Judging by Yoko Ono’s Twitter feed, she still believes in stupid shit. lol
[xxxix] He may have been born in 京橋 Kyōbashi, near 日本橋 Nihonbashi and modern 銀座 Ginza.
[xl] Today the term refers to people whose families have lived in Tōkyō for 2 or 3 generations but at the time – because mobility was still a bit restricted by economic factors – it basically referred to Tōkyōites who knew the city really well. And Ryūnosuke knew the city better than most.
[xli] I’ve never read the book, but here’s a summary.
[xlii] Marunouchi, I’m looking at you.
[xliii] At the time of writing, 1,000,000 yen is about $8,300 US.
[xliv] The series is named after the stadium.
[xlv] Today this team is the SoftBank Hawks.
[xlvi] Or ended up in a rhyming dictionary or something.
[xlvii] The name is a never ending source of pre-pubescent giggles and laughter to English speaking foreigners.

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