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Posts Tagged ‘katsu kaishu’

Yamanote Line: Hamamatsu-chō & Tamachi

In Japanese History on February 12, 2017 at 5:11 am

Hamamatsu-chō (beachside pine tree town)
Tamachi (rice paddy town)



So, we’re finally at the end of this series which has spanned the middle of 2016 to the beginning of 2017. I’m hoping that finishing this series will bring some closure to me and to all my longtime and future readers[i]. It’s been a wild year for me, so once again I apologize for the delay in getting this article out there for you.

Anyways… with all that said and done. Let’s get into to what is, for the time being[ii], our final two stops on the Yamanote Line. Hamamatsu-chō Station is located on Edo Bay[iii] in Minato Ward[iv]. Because both loop lines, the Yamanote Line[v] and the Ōedo Line[vi], stop here, this is the perfect location for us to really get off the train, step on to the platform, and scratch our heads.


Not one of Tōkyō’s more beautiful stations…

The bulks of both the Yamanote and the Ōedo lines are on solid ground, but in comparison to modern day Tōkyō, Edo was built up from a small portion of the bay towards Edo Castle, outward from which it radiated into suburbs and then in countryside. Hamamatsu-chō can be thought of as a convenient seaside suburb of Edo. In fact, not only did many daimyō have beachfront property here, the shōguns themselves had a massive villa replete with extravagant gardens, saltwater moats[vii], and duck hunting grounds. The estate was known as the 浜御殿 Hama Goten Seaside Palace, but today is called the 旧浜離宮庭園 Kyū-Hama Rikyū Tei-en Former Hama Detached Palace Garden[viii]. A short distance away[ix], is a former suburban daimyō residence that is known today as 旧芝離宮庭園 Kyū-Shiba Rikyū Tei-en[x] Former Shiba Detached Palace Gardens. While they are a mere shadow of their Edo Period glory, both plots of land are parks that bring together a mix of classic Japanese gardens and the ultra-modern skyline of Tōkyō.


Hama Goten in the Edo Period. Notice the castle-like fortifications.

The active word in the transformation of both palaces into public parks is 離宮 rikyū which is usually translated as “detached residence” and is a reference any residence of the imperial family that isn’t 皇居 Kōkyo, the remains of Edo Castle, where they are currently squatting. While Shiba Rikyū is a bit more modern, Hama Rikyū actually retains a decent amount of the Edo Period Garden despite all the later development.

And while much of the gardens and duck hunting areas remain intact, sadly none of the Edo Period structures are left except for some of the old stone work. Worse yet is that the magnificent view of Edo Bay has all but perished – replaced by manmade islands that are home to warehouses and industrial harbors. The once beautiful bayside views of pleasure boats cruising on the calm waters from lively teahouses[xi] under the bright hanging moon which were famed in ukiyo-e, poetry, and place names are long gone. If I seem like, I’m getting depressed and unfocused while still waxing poetic about this area that’s because… well, that’s how I am. I love this area today. It’s fucking awesome. However, I really get hung up on how over developed the area has become. I guess I’m just in a real love-hate relationship with the area[xii].


Hama Rikyu as it looks today.

One final note: Shiodome Station, where the original Shinbashi Station was located is just a few blocks away[xiii]. If you’re in the area, you should definitely check it out[xiv]. You’re also even closer to the Ōedo Line’s Daimon Station which gives you access to Zōjō-ji’s Great Gate and the destroyed mausolea of the Tokugawa shōguns[xv] and Tōkyō Tower.

Further Reading:


Tamachi Station with no people in it. Weird.


Two commissioned pieces of artwork at Tamachi Station get overlooked everyday by droves of salarymen, salarywomen, and hung over students who schlep through this station like herds of cattle during the morning rush hour. But that artwork, a stone monument and a mosaic that’s easy to miss, are testimony to how important this area was to the End of the Tokugawa Shōgunate and the beginning of the Japanese Empire.


Statue commemorating the site where Katsu and Saigō met.

What these two monuments commemorate is a famous meeting by Katsu Kaishū and Saigō Takamori. The gist of the meeting was this: Saigō intended to lay siege to the shōgun’s castle and behead the shōgun. Katsu knew Saigō was just crazy enough to try to burn the city of a million inhabitants – not just the largest city in the Japan, but arguably the largest city in the world. Saigō’s path was through war, Katsu’s was through negotiation.

The two met in a seaside teahouse here in Tamachi near the suburban palace of Satsuma Domain[xvi] and worked out a peaceful transfer of power. The newly formed imperial army wouldn’t have to fight the shōgun’s army or kill a million people by fire. The shōgun and his loyal retainers would leave the city peacefully[xvii]. The emperor was then free to enter the castle. Katsu Kaishū had negotiated a deal rarely seen in history.


A few years before the negotiation that saved a million lives, this area also saw the birth of a school for foreign learning. This institution would become Japan’s first western style university, today called 慶応大学 Keiō Daigaku Keiō University, which is now part of Japan’s Ivy League. Tamachi station will lead you directly to the campus, still boasting some Meiji Period architecture and a history deeply entwined in the tumultuous years surrounding the Bakumatsu.

One thing most people don’t think about is why did Saigō Takamori and Katsu Kashū have their meeting here. While all of this area is Tōkyō today, in their time this was actually the border of the shōgun’s capital of Edo and 荏原郡 Ebara-gun Ebara District on the Tōkaidō Highway. If the imperial army coming from the south was going to invade Edo, they’d pretty much have to come this way.

takanawa ōkido.jpg

Takanawa Ōkido – entrance to Edo

If you do a bit of walking from Tamachi Station towards Shinagawa Station, among rows of office buildings and old temples you can find a small trace of the actual city limits. All that remains is a small stone wall overgrown with grass and weeds. Apparently, it looked much this way at the time of Saigō and Katsu’s negotiation as the three traditional entrances in and out of Edo were de-fortified about 100 years before due to a stable peace[xix].


The Ōkido back then

Today, Tamachi is a great place to go drinking. There are lots of izakaya and small privately owned restaurants that cater to middle aged salarymen working in the headquarters of manufacturing companies as well as students aspiring to be corporate drones. There’s an interesting, and uniquely Japanese, intersection of young and old, modern and historical here.

And on that note, I think this is a good place to finally wrap up this series on the Yamanote Line. I think I’ve made a good case that it’s more than just an ruthless drinking game and I hope you’ve enjoyed the ride.

Further Reading:

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Explore Edo-Tōkyō

Do You Even History Geek, Bro?

[i] I wanna get back to place names, dammit!
[ii] A new station will supposedly be added before the 2020 Olympics. As it’s already 2017 and no construction that I know of has taken place, this now remains to be seen.
[iii] Or “Tōkyō Bay” to you noobs.
[iv] Literally “Harbor Ward.”
[v] A true “loop line.” More here.
[vi] Not quite a true “loop line.” More here.
[vii] Other than being ostentatious, this was presumably of inconsequential defensive worth. I mean, salt water may kill a freshwater fish, but a mammal with a sword doesn’t give a shit about salt water.
[viii] Originally, the 浜御殿 Hama Goten seaside palace of the Tokugawa shōguns.
[ix] Actually, closer to Hamamatsu-chō Station than the shōguns’ villa is.
[x] Originally, the residence of the Ōkubo clan and then the Kishū Tokugawa clan. After the Meiji Coup, the Arisugawa branch of the imperial family took over.
[xi] Pronounced “drinking & whoring.”
[xii] Definitely more on the “love” side, though.
[xiii] Which gives you access to the modern Shinbashi Station.
[xiv] Most Tōkyōites don’t know it exists.
[xv] Truth be told… between Shinbashi and Akabanebashi, you’ll find an area dotted with shrines, temples, and graveyards which once were overseen by the powerful priests of Zōjō-ji – all of whom reported directly to the Tokugawa shōguns.
[xvi] Today it’s the headquarters of NEC.
[xvii] Most did, but a small contingent of loyalists holed up at Kan’ei-ji, present day Ueno Park, in anticipation of a final showdown.
[xviii] All the country samurai who had been required to live in Edo were sent back to their native domains.
[xix] And a fairly rigorous system of checkpoints on the highways far away from Edo, and strategic placement of loyal daimyō surrounding the shōgun’s capital.

10 Famous People From Honjo

In Japanese History on September 12, 2015 at 12:33 pm

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

Keishō-in (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.

Wanna Read More?


Katsushika Hokusai (one of the greatest ukiyo-e artists)

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.

kaishu kakko ii

In short, he was born into an impoverished hatamoto family[xx], but he was obsessed with learning about the 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 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. He negotiated the peaceful transfer of the city during the Meiji Coup. And on top of all that, he had 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 50-100 years. But still, that moustache. lololol.

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 Okachimachi Okachimachi, Shitaya in Edo.

Anyways, despite his low rank, he was a smart, forward thinking dude. He 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. Like Katsu Kaishū, he supported the shōgunate’s progressive efforts to modernize and take on foreign learning. Unlike Katsu Kaishū, he would actually tell the 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 ass hats 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 awesome moustache. This moustache would take on a life of its own in his later years, but that’s a story for a blog about moustaches – not Japanese history.



When he returned 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 imperial army was the handing over of all naval assets to the imperial army. 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 8 best warships – and took it northwards to an area called 蝦夷地 Ezo-chi the Ezo Lands[xxi] at the time.

So, WTF is 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. His liberal European views shone through when he declared the island a sovereign territory separate from the 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. It was called 松前藩 Matusmae Han Matsumae Domain. The rest of Hokkaidō was “undefined land” inhabited by the アイヌ Ainu whom the Japanese from Honshū held in little regard.

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

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

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-fukukyokuchō 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. This is why the country was called the 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 imperial 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.

flag of the Ezo republic

flag of the Ezo republic

Meanwhile Back In Edo

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

After the collapse of the shōgunate, Edoites held the uncouth and culturally unsophisticated ex-samurai[xxvii] from western 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 center Epicenter of Japanese Culture for generations. Suddenly, they felt, their world had been turned upside down[xxviii].

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.

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 made peace with the former Tokugawa supporters it became apparent that he should be released from prison. He was then given a new position in 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].


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 a wooden plaque[xxxi]. Local legend insists that this sign was written by Enomoto Takeaki 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).

Wanna Read More?


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.

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 taxation 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 (but 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. 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 emerging middle class got the fuck out of the area. 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. Despite being of samurai stock, he did have humble origins so maybe he felt a connection to these proud, hardworking people whom he employed. Their hard work 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 baby 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.


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 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.

Wanna Read More?


Akutagawa Ryūnosuke (Meiji Era author)


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 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.


“I totally should have combed my hair before this photoshoot.”

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.  The condition finally got the best of him and he killed himself 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 one of the most popular sports in the country. Even high school baseball gets a lot of attention with the 夏の甲子園 Natsu no Kōshien 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 balls professionally.


The Japanese consistently perform 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 Yomiuri 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.



Sadaharu played first base 22 seasons from 1959-1980 for the Yomiuri Giants based out of the former 後楽園球場 Kōrakuen Kyūjō Kōrakuen Stadium, predecessor of 東京ドーム Tōkyō Dōmu Tōkyō Dome. In that time he set the lifetime homerun record by knocking out an incredible 868 homeruns and the team won 11 championships. He was voted MVP of セントラルリーグ Sentararu Rīgu the Central League’s 9 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 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 homerun 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.

Book Review – Samurai Revolution

In Japan Book Reviews, Japanese History on November 4, 2014 at 3:08 pm

Samurai Revolution
Romulus Hillsborough




Before we go back to some place names, I’ve been asked to review a book. The book is called Samurai Revolution[i] and is written by Romulus Hillsborough. I’ve read most of Romulus’ books in the past[ii], which are all of an easily digestible size. Except for his book on Sakamoto Ryōma, you could read most of them before bed over the course of 2-3 nights. So when I got my copy of Samurai Revolution, I was shocked. I actually had no idea that this book is – to date – his magnum opus clocking in at 593 pages, but if you count the appendix, glossary, index, bibliography and other resources it actually has nearly 610 pages of text. Needless to say, it’s taken me a long time to read the book, so apologies for the being late with this article.



My New Way to Review Books

In the past, I’ve recommended Japanese history books. Those books haven’t been anywhere near 600 pages.  I tossed them out there as books accessible to a broad range of readers. Except for one book[iii], to date I don’t think I’ve recommended any scholarly or overly demanding books.  But over the years, JapanThis! has evolved and changed and so… here were are. I’m going to try a new type of article where I review (not recommend) a book about Japan or Japanese History. So bear with me as I figure this out how I want to do this. The 593 page load was really time-consuming, so this first in-depth review might be a mess. If that’s the case, I apologize in advance, and that is no fault of the book of itself.

That said, I’ve created this new system for reviewing books as opposed to recommending. I’ve laid out my system here. The link will always be at the top of the page in web view (as opposed to mobile view).


Quick Review

  What I expected What I got
Overall Impression A breezy stroll through Katsu Kaishū’s version of the Bakumatsu[iv] supported by accounts of the major players of the Meiji Coup. In English, this is the best diachronic breakdown of the Bakumatsu I’ve read[v]. It’s accessible. There is unprecedented access to quotes and translations of Japanese source material that has never been available (or easily accessible) in English.
Type of Book A collection of anecdotes from Katsu Kaishū’s memoirs, most likely in chronological order. A comprehensive narrative of the Bakumatsu with citations. While Katsu Kaishū’s memoirs, interviews, and biographies take center stage, they are by no means the whole of the book.
Readability I expected a good narrative. Say what you will about him, but Hillsborough is a good storyteller. Quite readable, actually! Hillsborough can tell a story. Even in such a confusing time, the man has an eye for detail and has come into his own as a writer, in my opinion.
Bias I expected the Tokugawa to be the bad guys, Katsu Kaishū and Sakamoto Ryōma to be the only people who understand anything, and Satsuma, Chōshū, and Tosa to be the superstars of the greatest thing in the world, the Meiji Coup. The book is fairly free of bias. From time to time there is some pro-Meiji rhetoric and a venture or two into historical fictionland, but in the grand scheme of things, it ain’t bad at all. (that’s OK, my stupid blog is all about pro-shōgunate rhetoric, lol).
Audience Fans of the Bakumatsu looking for Katsu Kaishū’s point of view (generally not available in English), Sakamoto Ryōma lovers, and Saigō Takamori lovers. Hard to say. The book presents a lot of general information as if the reader has no idea about these events and concepts, yet plows forward in a style which is nearly academic. I’m not sure who this book was written for… perhaps for people who have dissed his books in the past.




Overall Review

In short, I’m pleased with this book. I would recommend this to every reader of JapanThis! who is interested in the Bakumatsu. I never get tired of going over the events of this period, but this book presents a lot of information that hasn’t been available in English (or hasn’t been easily accessible in English). As such, Hillsborough has put together something special. He can tell a story. He went to great primary and secondary sources. I’m assuming this book is aimed at intermediate lovers of the Bakumatsu, but the language is often confused between beginners and advanced[vii].
As the main focal point of this book, Romulus has chosen Katsu Kaishū. Fans of Japanese history are lucky to have Kaishū as source. Not only was he a major player during the transition from the so-called Pre-Modern Era to the Modern Era, he survived a social, economic, political, and cultural revolution and was on intimate terms with key players on both sides. Many involved were killed along the way.

He was born into a poor hatamoto[viii] family whose reputation was besmirched by his own father, Katsu Kokichi. Katsu Kaishū’s first exposure to the reality of his liege lords was when he was allowed to play in the inner sanctum of Edo Castle during the reign of the 11th shōgun, Tokugawa Ienari[ix]. He had a good head on his shoulders and when his inept, but hilarious father retired from family headship, Kaishū continued to apply himself diligently to get a post in the shōgunate. He applied himself much more than the previous 2 heads of the family but obviously learned how to be a bit of a rebel from them. But he eventually found himself at the center of the greatest cultural shift Japan had ever seen up to that point. He built up Japan’s first modern navy. He negotiated the surrender of Edo Castle (sparing the country’s most populous and beautiful city unnecessary destruction). He lived well into the Meiji Period with a wife, some children, and a culturally appropriate network of side pussy suitable to a man of his rank[x].



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[i] Subtitle: The Dawn of Modern Japan Seen through the Eyes of Shōgun’s Last Samurai. I presume this title is intentionally vague. Most Japanese nouns don’t differentiate between singular and plural. Many foreign loanwords in English retain the source language’s grammar. As such we could be talking about one samurai (in this case, Katsu Kaishū) or many samurai (all the other samurai who crop up in the book). At any rate, this is a savvy subtitle and it’s part of what piqued my curiosity in the book in the first place.
[ii] Possibly all of them, I just don’t have a list in front of me.
[iii] Tour of Duty: Samurai, Military Service in Edo, and the Culture of Early Modern Japan by Dr. Constantine Vaporis, which even as an academic text is accessible and enjoyable by anyone interested in the police of alternate attendance. Most people don’t want to go that deep, but if you really want to understand the evolution of Edo-Tōkyō and you really want to understand how this policy helped unify and boosted local economies while creating a truly national economy – all of which is alive and well today to a certain degree – this book is something you need. Clearly not for everyone, but I’m a big fan.
[iv] By the way, I’m a big fan of Katsu Kaishū, he was my gateway to the Bakumatsu. The dynamism of some people of this era, and the stubbornness of others, all united by the patriotism, often tainted by selfishness, is probably typical of every regime change we’ve seen. Except that Japan was literally dragged kicking and screaming into a so-called Modern Era that they didn’t choose. From the get go, few people recognized this as quickly as Katsu Kaishū.
[v] To be honest, in book form, this may be the only diachronic account of the Bakumatsu that I’ve read. I know there are other “definitive” books on the subject but I don’t think I’ve ever read them, to be honest.
[vi] About my “star system,” 4/5 is probably as good as it will get. I’m reserving 5/5 for something really mind-blowing. I dunno…, a picture book of Hijikata Toshizō’s girlfriends or something. Every book, every movie, every song has some room for criticism. Also, I have no half-stars because they don’t display correctly across platforms.
[vii] I’m guessing this is a by-product of the writing process. A lot of research has been put into this; different eras seem to have been written about at different times.
[viii] Hatamoto were direct retainers of the shōgun family in Edo. This doesn’t mean hatamoto were particularly rich because the status was inherited, but it did mean they had social rank. In theory, they might even be permitted to attend an audience with the shōgun.
[ix] #TeamIenari
[x] This is a holdover from the Edo Period. Many social changes occurred, but c’mon, it’s hard to give up your fuck buddies. Would you give up yours? And no, “side pussy” isn’t the official term. The official term is 側室 sokushitsu literally, “side room.” Until very recently, marriage in Japan was not a monogamous affair. While the concept of a bastard child existed in Europe and America, in Japan the need to sustain the direct male line demanded that you get as many sons as necessary to ensure smooth succession of the family leadership. It wasn’t cheating; it was a way to avoid familial extinction.

What does Tamachi mean?

In Japanese History on May 19, 2014 at 5:22 pm

Tamachi (field town, rice paddy town)

Tamachi Station in the rain

Tamachi Station in the rain

Let’s Get the Kanji Out of the Way First

ta, da, den
field, rice paddy

machi, chō
town, neighborhood

Present day 田町 Tamachi is a stop on the 山手線 Yamanote-sen Yamanote Line snuggled between 品川 Shinagawa and 浜松町 Hamamatsu-chō[i]. It’s also home of 慶応大学 Keiō Daigaku Keiō University established by 福沢諭吉 Fukuzawa Yukichi whose countenance graces the ¥10,000 note[ii]. It’s also home to one of the best burger shops in Tōkyō, Munch’s Burger Shack[iii].

Fukuzawa Yukichi, an educator and innovator in Japan.

Fukuzawa Yukichi, an educator and innovator in Japan.

Today there is no official area called Tamachi. In its most limited sense, the name Tamachi refers to the area directly surrounding 田町駅 Tamachi Eki Tamachi Station (which is technically located in 芝 Shiba). In its broadest sense, it is used to refer to a vague area in Shiba and the edge of 三田 Mita). There was an area known as 芝田町 Shiba-Tamachi until 1947 when the 23 wards were restructured.

Today you can take a stroll down Keio Naka-dori Shoten-gai. It's a bunch of izakaya and drinking/eating places that retain some of the Edo aesthetic.

Today you can take a stroll down Keio Naka-dori Shoten-gai. It’s a bunch of izakaya and drinking/eating places that retain a tiny bit of the Edo aesthetic.

Theory #1
Tamachi – Field Town

The most commonly given etymology is that the area was more or less plots of land used by farmers (it’s unclear whether vegetables or rice). With the development of Edo Bay by the Tokugawa Shōgunate, a merchant town was established in the area and given the rustic name 田町 Tamachi, literally “town in the fields.” This explanation is bolstered by the fact that the name Tamachi first appears in the Edo Period and that the town was located near the sea and the 東海道 Tōkaidō Tōkai Highway, both factors that would have necessitated and encouraged the growth of new merchant towns as the shōgun’s capital grew.

For the non-samurai, non-merchant population of Old Japan, this was your reality. No wonder Hideyoshi locked the classes down. He more than anyone knew that if you wanted to end the

For the non-samurai, non-merchant population of Old Japan, this was your reality.
No wonder Hideyoshi locked the classes down. He more than anyone knew that if you wanted to end the “warring states” period, you HAD to tie people to this work.

Theory #2
Mita Machi – Honorable/Divine Rice Paddy Town

Another theory ties into the origin of the place name Mita, which is right next to former Shiba-Tamchi. This theory points at evidence that there was a special set of rice paddies here that were under direct control of the Emperor (in the late Heian Period) and later, the Kamakura Shōgunate. This kind of rice paddy was called a 御田 mita “honorable rice paddy.” A related theory states that the type of rice paddy here was actually a 神田 mita[iv] “divine rice paddy.” This rice would be sent as offerings to 伊勢神宮 Ise Jingū Ise Grand Shrine in Mie Prefecture and nearby 御田八幡宮 Mita Hachiman-gū Mita Hachiman Shrine[v]. Whichever it was, an honorable rice paddy or divine rice paddy, it appears the name Mita is quite ancient and we do find 御田 Mita honorable rice paddy in the historical record and in the name of the shrine[vi].

rice tamachi

Rice paddies don’t change over the ages.

At any rate, at some point in history, the town 御田町 Mita Machi came to be written with the more easily recognized kanji 三田町 Mita Machi. The area near present day Tamachi Station preserved the old writing but people were mistakenly reading the name as 御田町 O-tamachi honorable field town and eventually just dropped what they perceived as an honorific 御 o (because usually town names don’t get honorific prefixes) and the place name was reduced to 田町 Tamachi, literally “field town.”

Furthermore, in the Edo Period, there were many 藩邸 hantei daimyō residences in the area and so you would have had samurai from all over Japan speaking their own dialects and having some idiosyncratic rules about kanji use. As a new pair of Edo dialects came to emerge under Tokugawa rule, it’s not unreasonable to imagine 御田町 Mita Machi being read as O-tamachi, especially when compared to nearby 三田町 Mita Machi which is relatively unambiguous in this part of Japan[vii].

Living in the suburbs of Edo was nice. Rustic, but nice. Repeat to yourself, the Yamanote was forested like most of Japan was.

Living in the suburbs of Edo was nice. Rustic, but nice. Repeat to yourself, the Yamanote was forested like most of Japan was.

I’m gonna say right now that there’s not much of a chance of knowing the etymology for sure, but a mixture of those two stories is my pet theory. But wait, there’s something pretty hilarious that’s gonna happen.

One of the greatest idiots of the Meiji Coup: Saigo Takamori. Typical imo zamurai of the time.

One of the greatest idiots of the Meiji Coup: Saigo Takamori.

Theory #3
Edoites Were Making Fun of People From Satsuma

OK, this is going to require a little cultural background.

My favorite theory (but I don’t believe it for a minute) is based on the fact that one of the first daimyō residences built here was that of 薩摩藩 Satsuma-han Satsuma Domain. One of Satsuma’s 名物 meibutsu famous things was (and still is) the 薩摩芋 Satsuma Imo Satsuma potato, also known as sweet potato. The classic Edo Period put down for a country bumpkin was 芋 imo potato[viii]. The refined Edo samurai wouldn’t think twice about referring to country samurai as 芋侍 imo zamurai filthy, dirt grubbing potato samurai – an epithet that resonates with the same sort of disdain and contempt with which Tokugawa Ieyasu viewed former dirt grubbing farmer, Toyotomi Hideyoshi [ix]. It’s classism at its best[x].

Shimazu Yoshihiro, lord of Satsuma at the Battle of Sekigahara and the Osaka Campaigns when the Tokugawa eradicated the last real military resistance to their hegemony.

Shimazu Yoshihiro, lord of Satsuma at the Battle of Sekigahara when the Tokugawa eradicated the last real military resistance to their hegemony.
Spoiler Alert!
(He drops the ball).

The lords of Satsuma, the 島津氏 Shimazu-shi Shimazu clan, were 外様大名 tozama daimyō outer lords during the Edo Period because… well, they were on the losing side of the Battle of Sekigahara, when Tokugawa Ieyasu more or less won control of the majority of Japan. But the Shimazu clan was descended from the progenitor of the first of the three great shōgunates, 源頼朝 Minamoto no Yoritomo, founder of the 鎌倉幕府 Kamakura Bakufu Kamakura shōgunate. They had pedigree, so Ieyasu didn’t make them relinquish their territory. As a result, they had control of trade routes and received tribute from the Ryūkyū Islands (modern Okinawa). They also had a vast, productive territory that often acted like an independent state. And while the 1st Tokugawa shōgun, Ieyasu, was lenient to them despite fucking up big time at the Battle of Sekigahara, the 3rd shōgun, Iemitsu, who worshiped Ieyasu, dealt with them quite coldly. One gets the impression that far off Satsuma held a grudge for being left on the outside.

3rd shogun, Tokugawa Iemitsu.

3rd shogun, Tokugawa Iemitsu.
“Shimazu? Y’all was a bunch of treacherous bitches. Eat a bag of dicks!”
That’s a literal quote, by the way.

But back to this Edo Period put down thing. In short, they were from the farthest limits of Japan[xi], they were famous a simple, dirty tuber that grows in the dirt[xii]. This theory says that the local Edoites and Edo samurai mocked Satsuma by calling the area 田町 Tamachi field town. They were a domain subjugated by local hero Tokugawa Ieyasu, they were from the country and they were no better than filthy, stinky, sweaty, dirt eating farmers.

This is a colorful story and was no doubt made up by imaginative Edoites. But in my honest opinion, this is utterly ridiculous. As much as I hate Satsuma’s role in the 幕末 bakumatsu end of the shōgunate, and as much as I hate the role of Satsuma’s elite in the oligarchy that sent Japan on a collision course with WWII, I don’t think the shōgunate would have tolerated anyone mocking a clan as rich, powerful, and connected as the Shimazu unless the family had been shamed and abolished by Ieyasu – which they weren’t. They had strong negotiating power and as such had a unique relationship with the Tokugawa Shōgunate. They even married into the Tokugawa Shōgun Family in the final days of the Edo Period[xiii].

Anyways, as much as I would love this to be true, the Shimazu were not the laughing stock of the Edo Period that this theory makes them out to be. And now you know how to mock people from the countryside in Japan. Just add 芋 imo before any noun[xiv].

Tamachi Today

One of Tamachi's crowning jewel's is the NEC world headquarters. I used to work in this building. The top of the building is narrow, buts the base is built on a sprawling lot. I'll get back to that in a minute.

One of Tamachi’s crowning jewel’s is the NEC world headquarters. I used to work in this building. The top of the building is narrow, but the base is built on a sprawling lot.
I’ll get back to that in a minute.

Quite a few daimyō had residences in the area, but the most famous was 薩摩藩 Satsuma-han who had their massive 下屋敷 shimo-yashiki lower residence here. It was a sprawling suburban palace on the outskirts of Edo. Unfortunately, nothing remains of it today, but the entire lot is now the world headquarters of NEC[xv]. A few other major manufacturing companies are in the area: Mitsubishi Motors and Morinaga (a sweets company).

Tamachi Station has this super-70's dasai 3D mural (mosaic?) that no one notices. But if you look closely it's Saigo Takamori and Katstu Kaishu drinking sake together in a traditional meeting. There is also a

Tamachi Station has this super-70’s dasai 3D mural (mosaic?) that no one notices. But if you look closely it’s Saigo Takamori and Katstu Kaishu drinking sake together in a traditional meeting. There is also a “kurofune” (black ship) flying out to space.
It’s brutally ugly. And the only thing that is really interesting about it is the fact that they used Saigo Nanshu as a name instead of Saigo Takamori.
This was the name he used when writing Chinese poetry.

In closing, I’d like to say that Tamachi’s role in Japanese history is mostly defined by a meeting (or series of meetings) between 勝海舟 Katsu Kaishū, a hatamoto of the Tokugawa, and 西郷隆盛 Saigō Takamori, an imo zamurai from Satsuma. One of the highest ranking women in Edo Castle was 篤姫 Atsu-hime Princess Atsu who was of the Satsuma Shimazu clan and was married to Tokugawa Iesada, the 13th shōgun (I alluded to this earlier). Katsu Kaishū, as a direct retainer of the Tokugawa was dependent on them for his income. During the collapse of the Tokugawa regime, he was a genius at working within the system to change the system. He knew Tokugawa hegemony had to end and helped various groups work to that end.

I love Katsu Kaishu!

Undoubtedly (IMHO) the biggest bad ass and biggest hero of the Bakumatsu, Katsu Kaishu. After Ii Naosuke was assassinated, he was the only Japanese guy who could communicate reality to imo zamurai.

However, he never sold out the Tokugawa. When the newly formed Meiji Army marched on Edo it was led by that imo-zamurai, Saigō Takamori. He threatened to march on the city (which would probably have burned the city) or burn Edo Castle (which in turn would probably have burned the city). Katsu Kaishū negotiated a peaceful surrender of the Edo Castle – I’ve heard Atsu had a hand in this, too. The Tokugawa left the castle and 1,000,000 lives were spared a horrific holocaust at the hands of Satsuma and Chōshū. This meant Edo lived to see another day… albeit with a new name, Tōkyō.

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[i] Although, a new station is being built between Shinagawa and Tamachi, so this dynamic will change in the future.
[ii] And was one of the first Japanese dignitaries to travel abroad at the end of the Edo Period.
[iii] If you go, always remember that Japanese “rare” means “still twitching,” “medium” is “rare,” “well-done” is “medium,” and “very well done” is probably still a little pink. While some chefs have mastered the art of the hamburger, most of them fail on the cooking front because who the fuck eats a rare hamburger?? Welcome to sushi-land. The Japanese love that shit.
[iv] 神田 has multiple readings, shinden and kanda being the most common. The latter being a topic I will discuss at some point in the near future. Wink wink. That said, the reading of and as /mi/ is quite ancient and really sounds like it’s associated with the imperial courts at Heian Kyō or Nara. I feel like there’s a close connection to Shintō in that reading. But that’s just my impression.
[v] The shrine is not in its original location, though it is near Tamachi Station even today. The shrine still uses the original spelling 御田 and not the modern 三田. The shrine was founded in 709.
[vi] There’s nothing saying both weren’t true – or that the similarities are related, ie; it’s a kind of Heian Period or Kamakura Period kanji joke.
[vii] It was a long time ago, so I don’t know if it’s any good or not, but I tried to tackle this problem last year in my article on Mita. (edit: Just had a look and the article is pretty short, but wouldn’t be a waste of your time).
[viii] This pejorative use of 芋 imo potato is still around, actually.
[ix] While Ieyasu never called Hideyoshi a hick (they grew up in roughly the same part of Japan), he detested Hideyoshi because of his low birth (he was a dirty, dirt grubbing farmer) and the high rank he had achieved (he united Japan under his control, made all the daimyō pledge allegiance to him, and became the regent of the emperor). Ieyasu didn’t like that shit one bit. Just as the shōgunate vilified Hideyoshi in the histories, the tozama daimyō (outer lords) were branded as “outer” for all of the Edo Period. Add to that the fact that city people always look down on the dirty, uneducated, uncouth, and unsophisticated people from outside of the city. Edoites were no different. The elite samurai of Edo definitely viewed themselves as the cultural and moral superiors of those country samurai.
[x] Worst?
[xi] Literally, the southernmost region of Kyūshū and – at the time – the southernmost region of Japan.
[xii] Satsuma imo was not well known in Kantō before the Edo Period. The system of alternate attendance brought goods from all over Japan to Edo. That said, Satsuma imo was popular with women, not men. It was thought to be good for beautiful skin.
[xiii] More about this in a minute.
[xiv] JapanThis does not endorse mocking or discriminating against people on the basis of race, color, religion (creed), gender, gender expression, age, national origin (ancestry), disability, marital status, sexual orientation, or military status.
[xv] To the best of my knowledge NEC has no connection to Satsuma.

What does Ōta mean?

In Japanese History on March 20, 2013 at 2:45 am

(Big Field, Big Rice Paddy)

Today’s post was another reader suggestion. Keep them coming!

The reader is living in Ōta-ku and asked if Ōta Ward has anything to do with Ōta Dōkan, the guy who built Edo Castle before the Tokugawa moved in.

It’s a good guess, but if you take a look at the kanji, you’ll notice they are actually different.

大田 (big rice field; a place name)
太田 (fat/magnificent rice field; a surname)

So, unfortunately there is no connection to Ōta Dōkan, even though he probably held power over this region.

So here’s the real deal.

The fact of the matter is that before WWII, there were two wards in this area: 大森区 Ōmori-ku (Ōmori Ward – which means “Big Forest”) and 蒲田区 Kamata-ku (Kamata Ward – which means “Cattail Field”). In 1947, the 35 wards of Tōkyō were restructured as the 23 Special Wards of the Tokyo Metropolitan Area. Ōmori and Kamata were merged into a single ward. The from Ōmori and the from Kamata were combine to make a new name: 大田. I see what you did there!

the grave of katsu kaishu and his wife

Katsu Kaishu, hero of the Bakumatsu and early Meiji Period is buried in Ōta.


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