Samurai, Swords, and Suicide

 It was not uncommon for samurai to commit ritual suicide called seppuku “belly slitting”. Harakiri is another term, often mispronounced as “Hairy Carry”.  It was a death ritual that samurai employedto show their sincere regret for having failed in their obligations.  Slitting one’s own throat was another method they sometimes employed.

One of the most compelling accounts in my novel, The Shogun’s Gold-Solving a Historical Mystery describes the true story of a horrific mass suicide of nineteen teenage samurai. The incident is relatively unknown outside of Japan, but it plays an important part in my novel.   It occurred at the end of a short civil war between those who supported the Shogun and the Imperial Army which sought to“restore”  the Japanese emperor.

In October,1868, the northern domain of Aizu was besieged by the Imperial Army which surrounded and bombarded Tsuruga Castle which was located in the center of the Aizu’s capital. It was thought to be impregnable, but it was no match for the modern English cannonry employed by the Imperial Army.  While the castle was being bombarded, another battle was taking place miles away.

byakkotai-boy
A memorial depicting one of the boys as he gazes at Tsuruga Castle thinking that it had fallen.

A contingent of teenage samurai, part of the Byakkotai, or “White Tiger Force”  was sent to take part in the battle, but they became lost. The leader decided to return to the castle to aid in its defense, and the small group of teenagers stopped on a hillside clearing where, in the distance, they saw the castle town enveloped in smoke and flame. They assumed that they were too late to come to the capital’s defense and they all decided to commit suicide to atone for their perceived failure in defending Aizu.

This tragedy is graphically described in The Shogun’s Gold  when the hero of my novel stumbles upon the bodies of nineteen boys whose ages ranged from 16 to 17.  Here is a modern woodblock print depicting the incident.203r59d

bykkotai-graves
The simple grave stones of the teenage warriors.

In present day Japan, suicides average 70 per day and teenage suicides are notably high.  Failing important exams is  one of the main reasons why Japanese youth take their own lives.

Another, more famous case of mass suicide has been immortalized in the play, the Story of the Forty-seven Samurai.  However, from my point of view, the tragedy of the Byakkotai is more compelling because those who died by their own hands were so young.

    aizucastleTsuruga Castle showing the effectsof the Imperial Army’s bombardment

In 1984, NHK, the national TV network broadcast a serial depicting the end of the civil war in Japan.  You may find it on YouTube.

When Japan joined Nazi Germany  and Italy before the outbreak of WWII, Mussolini sent his foreign minister (his son-in-law) to Japan to donate part of an ancient Roman column to memorialize the Byakkotai sacrifice.  Hitler sent a large, stone tablet featuring a large swastika that was chiseled off after the war.

byakkotai-pillar
This is a photo I took of the Roman column.  A Japanese couple is seen standing below it having their picture taken.
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Tsurga Castle as is is today

THE SEASONS-Spring

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ABOUT JAPANESE PLUMS and PLUM TREES

I took the above photo at Suzumushi Temple in Kyoto in 2017.  (Suzumushi is a kind of insect called a “bell ringing cricket”…but, that’s a whole different story!)

Plum in Japanese is “ume”, written 梅. The left side of the character 木 is a pictograph for tree and the more complicated right side provides the reader with the on-yomi, or Chinese pronunciation. The plum is one of the favorite trees in China and Korea and Japan. It is regarded as the harbinger of Spring. It can have red, white, or even yellow blossoms. It is closely related to the apricot. There are several varieties found in Japan.

The fruit ripens in June and July during the rainy season, and the word for rainy season is “bai u” which means “plum rain”  梅雨.  Oh, how hot and muggy it is in Japan during bai u!

The flower is a favorite family crest, and there are scores of variations. One is pictured here—-

                                                                      PLUM CREST

Plum wine is a favorite in Japan and many housewives brew it.  They take a big jar, fill it with plums and shōchu, a Japanese liquor.  However, it is not uncommon for them to use vodka. The jar is kept in a closet where the liquor slowly absorbs the flavors of the plum fruit. Ume boshi, or salted (pickled) plums are a favorite condiment.

There is a saying in Japanese:

Sakura kiru baka ume kiranu baka.” It literally means “It’s stupid to trim a cherry tree, and its stupid not to trim a plum tree.” The reason being that cherry trees do not do well when they are pruned.

The following site contains a lot more information about ume.  It’s a great site if you like things Japanese.

https://www.kyuhoshi.com/2015/01/01/plum-ume-blossom-in-japan/

Ōsōjiー大掃除 or the “Big Cleaning”

New Year’s Day is the biggest holiday of the year in Japan.  It used to coincide with the Chinese New Year, but that is another story.  It is a time for gift giving, celebrations, feasting, and visiting one’s ancestral grave sites.  On New Year’s Eve, millions of Japanese visit their local Shinto Shrines and Buddhist temples.  Temple bells toll 108 times.  It is believed that humans have that many “passions” or sins.  Each strike of the bell supposedly drives away one such passion.

About a week before January first, people start their “Big Cleaning”.  Students scrub the floors of their schools and dust every nook and cranny.  Employees do the same at their companies. Parks, the road in front of one’s home, and one’s garden get the clean treatment too.  It is very important to start the new year out in clean surroundings.  In Japan, cleanliness is indeed next to Godliness!

 

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From left to right, photos courtesy of:

https://japonismo.com/blog/el-osoji-o-la-limpieza-de-fin-de-ano

http://cantinho-coreia.blogspot.com/2013/12/o-costume-do-osoji-grande-limpeza-de.html

http://www.japantimes.co.jp/life/2015/12/26/lifestyle/osoji-ways-keep-home-spick-span/#.WF0qOLG-K8U

A Recipe for 冬至 (tōji) Winter Solstice 

One of the traditional foods served on the eve of the hibernal, or winter solstice 冬至  is the Japanese squash called kabocha.  This squash is harvested in the fall and allowed to “rest” outside in the cool air where its flesh sweetens with age.  My wife served a really tasty kabocha dish on the 20th of December.  It goes with just about any meal from steaks to mac ‘n cheese! They are found in most supermarkets.  Here is  how to prepare it—-Enjoy!

kabocha

1.Wash the skin, cut in half and scrape out the seeds.

2. Make slices about a quarter inch thick, leaving the skin on.

3. Heat a frying pan under slow heat and add about a tablespoon of olive oil. Fry on both sides until the orange meat is tender.  Add salt and pepper.

Another recipe that is strictly Japanese style is as follows:

  1. Slice the squash into one and a half inch cubes. Again, leave the skin on.  It’s good!
  2. Add to a deep pan: 1 cup of water (or dashi, if you have it), 2 tablespoons of sugar,   2 tablespoons of mirin (sweetened sake), 2 tablespoons of sake and 2 tablespoons of soy sauce. You probably have soy sauce. But, if you don’t have the other ingredients, just replace with water. (Some people have suggested chicken broth, but we’ve never tried it.)
  3. Bring to a boil and add squash. Gently cover with pre-cut tin foil, the size of the inside of the pan with a nickle sized hole in the middle
  4. Turn to low heat and cook until the meat is soft. Use a tooth pick to test whether its done.

 

 

 

 

Japanese and English

Japanese companies often rely on unqualified employees to translate ads, menus, instructions, etc. into English.  The results are often mystifying.  I found this example in The Economist:  

SUPER FUN WARNING!

Many big grinding comes with being fun too close on grid of power! For ease of honor, find early the grand gateway much closer to away. Much regards please.

We can only wonder!

Courage and Human Kindness: The story of John Manjiro

An excerpt from the draft of my novel The Shogun’s Gold-Solving a Historical Mysery…

“Gentlemen, I am Major Benjamin Butler, retired. I have come to your estimable country well recommended by Mr. John Manjiro.”

Just who was the man named Manjiro? He was a historical figure born in Japan in 1827. (At that time, commoners did not have family names). At the age of 14 and desperately poor, he set out with this uncle and friends to fish off the coast of Shikoku Island.  A violent storm swept them away and they ended up shipwrecked  on the deserted island of Torishima, about  700 miles from their home.

They were stranded there for several months and were at the point of starvation when an American whaling ship stopped and rescued them.  The kindly captain, William Whi08d968bc9ba3d145179c6a3912df85e3tfield, clothed and fed the ragged shipwrecked fishermen and took a shine to Manjiro, offering him the chance to return to the U.S. with him.  To this, John Manjiro (as he was now called) readily agreed. When he landed in Fairhaven, Massachusetts in 1843, Captain Whitfield saw to it that John learned English at the local public school.

He eventually entered the Bartlett School in Fairhaven where he learned navigation and advanced mathematics.  He signed on to a whaling ship and was promoted to harpooner.  After a lengthy voyage, he returned to Fairhaven… but not for long.  With the $350 he had earned, he sailed to San Francisco and then travelled to the Sierras where he panned for gold and came back with $600, about $30,000 in today’s money.

Homesick, he made up his mind to return to Japan but doing so was a dangerous proposition.  The Shogun’s government  had established  a policy of national isolation  and made it a capital offense to have contact with foreigners.  Nevertheless, John Manjiro booked passage on a ship that took him and several of his former shipwrecked mates to Okinawa where he was for all intents and purposes, put under hous89532715cec6eb8f634cb1defa9b3e94e arrest.

After months of interrogation, he was allowed to return to his home where he met his widowed mother after almost 12 years. In 1853,  the Shogun’s government summoned him to Edo (modern day Tokyo) where he advised the government on matters concerning  the treaty demands being made by Commodore Mathew Calbraith Perry who had arrived with a flotilla of warships.  For his services, Manjiro, who was a commoner,  was elevated to the rank of samurai.   He chose “Nakahama” as his surname after the town where he had been born.

In the ensuing years Nakahama Manjiro helped establish the whaling industry in Japan, translated a book on navigation, and acted as an official interpreter when the first Japanese delegation visited the U.S.  But, he never forgot the kindness of Captain William Whitfield and in 1870, when he landed in New York with a government delegation, he travelled to New Bedford, Massachusetts to visit his old friend and benefactor.  A photograph of the two men was recently discovered at the New Bedford library and is pictured here with the library’s permission.

Returning to Japan, he became English professor at the institution which would eventually become Tokyo University.  He died in 1898 after a long illness.

Several years ago, I made trips to imanaga and meJapan to conduct research for my novel “The Shogun’s Gold-Solving a Historical Mystery.”  During one stay, Ihad the pleasure to meet and interview Dr. Issei Imanaga,  a descendant of Manjiro. He and his wife Yuko provided me with much valuable information for my novel. Since then, we have been close friends.

In 2009, a Japanese philanthropist bought Captain Whitfield’s home in Fairhaven and turned it into a museum which is now operated by The Whitfield-Manjiro Friendship Society.   Every other year in October, a festival honoring Whitfield and Manjiro is held in Fairhaven.  The festivals are now on hold until the Covid pandemic runs its course. Check the following website from time to time to find out about the timing of the next festival:

http://www.whitfield-manjiro.org/THE_MANJIRO_STORY.html

 A few years ago, a bi-lingual children’s book was offered: “Courage & Effort of John Manjiro.”(See below. It can easily be read by enlarging it.)  It is richly illustrated. Sadly, I can no longer find where it can be purchased.

manjiro page #3

Note: The photos of Manjiro and Whitfield are courtesy of the Whitfield-Manjiro Friendship Society. Th. Two pages from  “Courage & Effort of John Manjiro” are printed here with permission from the author.

Manjū-Japanese Confections

“It is exquisite,” said Tokunari as he  admired the beauty of the sweet in front of him.  It was a  bean jam confection called manju.  Dye from flower petals were used to color it.  The one in front of him was  fashioned to resemble a miniature persimmon. He took a sip of citrus tea and picked it up with a pair of lacquered chopsticks. He nibbled at it…”

My first blog is about a Japanese confection called “manjū” * made with azuki beans and lima beans that are boiled and then mashed together with sugar to make a sweet paste. The result is often referred to as “bean jam”.  Manju comes in several varieties and there are regional specialties that are sold throughout the country.  However, flower petal dyes are no longer used!

Manju is a sweet that was imported into Japan about 700 years ago where it has been popular ever since.  Most manju shops offer a wide variety of shapes, often created to herald the current season or some upcoming event such as a graduation.

My wife and I visit Japan twice a year to visit relatives and do research for my upcoming novel.  While we are in Fukuoka, a city on Kyūshū Island,  we often drop by Togetsu**, a shop specializing in manjuTogetsu was established  four generations ago and the current artist is Seichi Shirai, a college graduate who works with his father.  You’ll understand why I refer to him as an artist when you view the video down below.tangerine_517589

Tangerines are a popular fruit sold in the fall and the winter.  Let’s see how close Seichi came in imitating a real tangerine.

* **Togetsu is translated as “Moon Rabbit” 兎月. There is an ancient Hindu/Buddhist tale that recounts  a family of animals who came across an old, starving man. The animals were struck with pity and each brought him food that they normally collected.  Sadly, the rabbit was a grass eater and so he threw himself  into the fire that the old man had built so that he could have meat for a meal.  A diety named Sakra was so touched with the rabbit’s sacrifice that he saved him and sent him to the moon to remind humans about the importance of charity.  He lives up there today, making herbs for the gods in heaven.  Can you see him in this picture?

Final Moon Rabbit

A bit of a stretch, isn’t it?  The Aztecs had a myth about the rabbit in the moon.  To find out more about it, check out this site: http://www.mexicolore.co.uk/aztecs/aztefacts/rabbit-in-the-moon

Bunrakuー文楽 Japanese puppetry

“Yuki felt  he was being swept along by some unseen force.  ‘Is it Fate hiding like the black garbed bunraku puppeteers?  Is Fate toying with me?’, he wondered.”

Puppets? If you are old enough, you might think of Howdy Doody.  No?  Well, you’ve  probably seen those jerky moving wooden dolls that are suspended on strings at one time or another.Howdy v

This work is in the public domain because it was published in the United States between 1923 and 1977 and without a copyright notice

Bunraku, or puppet theater is a different take on puppetry.  Japanese puppets are often large, somewhat similar in size to those that ventriloquists use, but it takes three men to  manipulate them.

bunraku-puppet-maidenThe face of the omozukai, or main puppeteer is visible.  He manipulates the head, right arm and hand of the puppet which is called a ningyō. Two other puppeteers where black gowns and black hoods.  They move the ningyō’s arms, hands, legs and feet.  All three men employ shafts and levers inside the doll to make it move.  Although we see them in plain sight, it is easy to ignore them as we focus on the ningyō’s graceful, human-like movements.

Man_playing_shamisenRdsmith/4gallery Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license.

A chanter (Tayu)  narrates the story and  recites the puppets’ lines. A musician accompanies the Tayu  with a three stringed samisen.  The music serves to intensify the puppets’ emotions and movements. The elaborate costumes and stage sets are captivating even to those who do not understand Japanese.

Come, take a look at the first clip, but watch carefully…is she a beautiful woman or a demon in disguise? 

To learn more, watch this NHK Educational Corporation video.  It is about 30 minutes long, but it is well worth the time to watch it. NHK is the government owned TV corporation.