Daibutsu, Kamakura

Daibutsu, Kamakura
Daibutsu in Kamakura, June 2010. There were thousands of school kids visiting that day. It was still great fun.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Samuel Hawley's "Imjin War"

The Shogun-ki blog has an excellent part one interview with Samuel Hawley, author of The Imjin War. The Imjin War is the story of the late 16th century Japanese samurai invasion of Korea from 1592 to 1598 initiated by the powerful Japanese warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Hideyoshi was the great warlord who finally succeeded in unifying Japan under his rule after more than a century of civil war. Hideyoshi's stated goal of the Korean invasion was to eventually conquer Ming China. Hideyoshi's dream was never achieved as his samurai armies, after early successes that took them to the very border with China, eventually bogged down into brutal warfare on the Korean peninsula. The failure of Hideyoshi's invasion of Korea was partly due to the intervention of tens of thousands of Ming Chinese troops that crossed the Yalu River to confront the invaders just as they did over 350 years later against the Americans. Hawley's book is probably the best English language work on the 16th Century Japanese invasion of Korea.

Here is part two of the interview with Mr. Hawley.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Sakamoto Ryoma and the Meiji Restoration

Sakamoto Ryoma is big in Japan right now with the current Taiga drama Ryomaden. But even before this drama, Ryoma was probably the most famous and popular historical figure in Japanese history. Why is that and is his popularity deserved? Recently I read Marius Jansen's book Sakamoto Ryoma and the Meiji Restoration. Jansen, who passed away in 2000, was a professor of Japanese History at Princeton University and author of more than twenty books of which this book he is probably best known for. First published in 1961, this book is still considered one of the excellent sources regarding the Bakumatsu period. In Sakamoto Ryoma and the Meiji Restoration, Jansen describes the societal transformation from the late Tokugawa Bakufu through the restoration of power to the Emperor. Jansen focused mainly on Sakamoto Ryoma but also devoted much of the book to Nakaoka Shintaro, another important figure in Meiji Restoration or Bakumatsu period. The title of the book really could have been Sakamoto Ryoma, Nakaoka Shintaro and the Meiji Restoration. Jansen begins by covering the political and economic situation of Japan in general and then moves to the political and economic issues in the domain of Tosa, Ryoma's home. Finally Jansen narrows the focus of the book further to that of the actions of the shishi and specifically of Ryoma and Shintaro. The shishi were the samurai, often ronin, who worked and fought for the overthrow of the Tokugawa Bakufu and the restoration of the emperor. One of the aspects I like about this book is how Jansen wrote it in a manner that could be easily understood by readers who may not be well-versed in Japanese history or the Bakumatsu period.

I am not going to detail the events of the Bakumatsu that Jansen covers in the book since these events are already so well known. I will highlight some interesting points I took from the book and use the book to try and answer some questions about Sakamoto Ryoma. It would be an understatement to say that Sakamoto Ryoma is one of the key figures in the Meiji Restoration period. Sakamoto Ryoma is a political hero in Japan and even a celebrity star. You can find his name and face everywhere. His grave site in Kyoto is a popular destination and although Nakaoka Shintaro is also buried there, visitors often leave with Sakamoto Ryoma merchandise which they purchase nearby. I am pretty sure there are not too many people buying Nakaoka Shintaro merchandise. This raises questions such as why is the popularity of Ryoma so high and is it deserved? How much of a contribution did Ryoma actually make to the events of the time?And how original were some of Ryoma's important ideas?

Jansen describes Ryoma's development from the early years of the Bakumatsu period when loyalist parties were being formed. He points out that both Ryoma and Shintaro were not so much innovators as they were followers of the opinion of their peers during this early time. They were literate but by no measure were they intellectuals. Even a few years later, a friend of Ryoma's, Hirai Shujiro, warned his sister against getting involved in Ryoma's plans: "Although Ryoma is a splendid fellow, he doesn't have any learning, and therefore he sometimes makes serious mistakes" (p80). One of the best examples of Ryoma's lack of political knowledge and education in his early years was his famous meeting with a group of samurai from Mito domain who had traveled to Tosa to win support for their loyalist cause. Ryoma and several others traveled to the Tosa border to meet with the Mito group. The diary of one of the Mito messengers revealed the lack of political awareness of the the Tosa group in 1858. "The two outsiders [Tosa men]," he wrote, "don't know a thing about their han's affairs; Ryoma doesn't even know the names of any of the ministers" (p89-90). Clearly Ryoma was not one of the most brilliant people around in his younger years. He was not highly educated and his writing ability was poor. Jansen describes Ryoma's letters to his sister as awkward and his vocabulary was limited. He certainly was not a person developing creative philosophies or ideas. So how did Ryoma come to be such an important figure?

In 1862, Ryoma fled Tosa. But the following months showed how little he realized the complexity of the problems facing Japan. Following the logic of a simple swordsman, Ryoma concluded that assassinating the "cowardly leaders" was the best course of action and his target would be Katsu Kaishu, a leading Tokugawa official. It is at this point according to Jansen that we see for the first time Ryoma's ability to adapt and learn. When confronted with evidence that he was wrong about Kaishu, Ryoma reconsiders his goal and decides to become Kaishu's disciple. Jansen states that this event showed Ryoma's growing sophistication and maturity (p153). Jansen also points out that one of the most important aspects of Ryoma's development was the fact that his duties for Kaishu brought him into contact with some of the most enlightened Tokugawa councillors where he first heard the possibility of a peaceful transfer of power from shogun to emperor. Already by 1863 as Ryoma continued to develop, Kaishu began entrusting him with more responsible and difficult missions (p169). Clearly Kaishu saw something in Ryoma to trust him with these types of assignments. Although Ryoma was not well educated, Kaishu's trust in him showed that Ryoma had other strong qualities. Ryoma's qualities lay in the fact that he was skilled at developing relationships which indicates that he probably had a high level of emotional intelligence.

Under Kaishu, Ryoma continued to refine and moderate his own political thinking. However, by late 1864 Kaishu was dismissed from his post and Ryoma was now back on his own as a ronin. But this now eventually brings Ryoma under the protection of Satsuma and the beginning of his important relationship with that domain. And as we all know, Ryoma may be most famous for his work in bringing about the Satsuma-Choshu alliance. The Sat-Cho alliance is certainly one of the most important events during the Bakumatsu period so the question is really how important was Ryoma in bringing this together? The fact is Ryoma was not solely responsible for bringing Satsuma and Choshu together. Although a quick scan of the internet for Sakamoto Ryoma would often tell you that he was. Nakaoka Shintaro joined the Choshu loyalists during the same time that Ryoma was working with Satsuma and he worked to convince the Choshu leaders of the importance of an alliance (p186). In addition, other Tosa Loyalists worked towards this alliance by working closely with the Kyoto nobles who had been expelled from the capital. I don't think this should take away from what Ryoma was able to accomplish or the significance of his role. However, at the very least Shintaro should be given as much credit for his work as Ryoma. In some ways, Shintaro's assignment was even more difficult than Ryoma's. Shintaro had to convince a Choshu domain whose bitterness and hatred towards Satsuma was strong due to Satsuma previously siding with the Bakufu in expelling Choshu forces from Kyoto.

Ryoma is of course known for more than just his work in bringing about the Sat-Cho alliance. He is also known for his efforts in developing a modern navy and the Kaientai, the naval auxiliary unit that also would later become one of the first modern corporations in Japan. I am not going to get into those accomplishments of Ryoma but rather his development of the Eight-Point Plan for which he his also famous for. Jansen states that Ryoma's ideas formed during his years of service with Kaishu where he was exposed to the idea that the shogun should resign in favor of the emperor. He had also become familiar with the idea of a conciliar form of government from bakufu officials such as Okubo Ichio who had developed ideas about a council of lords (p294). Similar ideas were also proposed by others such as lord Matsudaira Shungaku. Ryoma's time in Nagasaki also exposed him to many more ideas regarding new forms of government. It was in Nagasaki where Ryoma met Nagaoka Kenkichi who some believe was the person who first wrote the plan for a new government which came to be known as Sakamoto's Eight-Point Plan. However, Jansen states that regardless of who it was who worded the Eight-Point Plan, there can be no doubt that it represented ideas toward which Ryoma had been reaching for several years (p295).

So why is Ryoma so much more famous than Nakaoka Shintaro and the many other important players involved in the Meiji Restoration? Jansen provides some excellent examples for why Ryoma became so popular. Following the assassination of Ryoma and Shintaro, Jansen states "Restoration leaders lamented the loss of both shishi. Iwakura particularly regretted the death of Nakaoka, but on the whole Sakamoto Ryoma's warm and engaging personality won him more eulogies, as they had won him more friends" (p345). "Nakaoka was a sage," Tanaka Koken wrote, "Sakamoto a real hero." As Jansen states, "Ryoma's romantic career and bouyant, self-confidant bearing and correspondence lent themselves well to the image the nation wished to hold of its Restoration shishi." Another interesting point that Jansen mentions regarding Ryoma's popularity is his lack of involvement with the Meiji government. Ryoma may not have wanted to participate in the new government even had he not been assassinated. But the fact that he was never a part of the new Meiji government meant that his image would never be tainted by the negative politics and issues of the new government.

So does Ryoma's fame exceed his actual contributions during the restoration period? Of course it does. His likeness is everywhere in Japan including on toilet paper and candy wrappers. He is probably the most famous and popular figure in Japanese history. He is far more famous and popular than other Bakumatsu figures, especially Nakaoka Shintaro, even though Shintaro and others probably contributed as much to the restoration as Sakamoto Ryoma did.

Was Ryoma the originator of the major ideas that he is known for such as the Eight-Point Plan? I think it's safe to say that no, he was not an originator of the ideas he is known for but rather modified and refined these ideas. Marius Jansen says as much when he states that Kenkichi may have actually conceived of the idea of the Eight-Point Plan.

The reality of Ryoma in Japan is overshadowed by his myth and dramatic storytelling. Shiba Ryotaro's eight volume novel Ryoma ga Yuku is probably the biggest reason for Ryoma's fame and popularity in post-war Japan. Although Ryotaro's work is fiction and he took much poetic license when he wrote it, the novel still contributed greatly to Ryoma's legend and popularity. But hold on all you Ryoma fans out there. Don't come banging down my door just yet. The fact is Ryoma WAS one of the most significant figures during the Bakumatsu. His personality, his character, his ability to develop relationships and create alliances allowed him to do what few others could have done. Maybe the Sat-Cho alliance would have materialized eventually without Ryoma's efforts. But without his work, it would probably not have happened when it did. And maybe Ryoma did not originate the Eight-Point Plan. But as Jansen described, Ryoma modified it and expanded on it and he used his abilities to convince others of the viability of this plan including his lord Yamauchi Yodo who took the plan to the shogun and convinced him to resign his powers to the emperor. He was probably the only one who could have done that at that time and had he not, the end of the Bakumatsu likely would have been far bloodier. I think you will find many examples throughout history of famous historical figures who may not have developed many of the original ideas they are known for but they took those ideas and improved on them or used their charisma and skill to carry them through. Sakamoto Ryoma is no different. Marius Jansen did an excellent job showing how Ryoma grew and developed from a young, ignorant samurai from Tosa to a person respected by some of the most powerful figures of the Bakumatsu period. That by itself demonstrates how significant a person Sakamoto Ryoma was.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Japanese found to host seaweed-digesting bacteria

An article from the Los Angeles Times reports that researchers studying enzymes that can process seaweed were astonished to find these enzymes in humans. According to the article, The researchers say the Japanese may have acquired the ability to digest nori because of their consumption of sushi.

Here is the Times article:

Bacteria in the guts of some Japanese people may have acquired the ability to digest seaweed because of the sushi their human hosts consume, researchers have reported. The evolved trait enables their human hosts to digest carbohydrates found in edible seaweed such as nori, whose tough cell walls the human body cannot process on its own.

The finding, published Thursday in the journal Nature, was stumbled upon by biochemists at the National Center for Scientific Research and Pierre and Marie Curie University in France while seeking enzymes that could digest carbohydrates in the walls of certain red algae.

They were not surprised to discover genes carrying the code for such enzymes in several seaborne microbes that live and feast on the algae.

But they were surprised when a genetic database revealed evidence of the same genes in a completely different habitat: the human gut, specifically, a Japanese gut.

"We were astonished," said study co-author Mirjam Czjzek of the university's Roscoff Biological Station. "But rather quickly, when we saw it was a Japanese sample, we got the connection."

The researchers then searched for signs of the genes in two sets of data: one gathered from bacteria living in the guts of 18 North Americans and the other from those of 13 Japanese. They found signs of the enzymes in five of the Japanese samples, but none in those from the North Americans.

Scientists theorize that the gut bacteria acquired the genetic instructions to make the enzymes when DNA was transferred to them from bacteria living on the nori seaweed that the Japanese were wrapping around their sushi.

Just how long ago the genetic transfer occurred is unclear, said Justin L. Sonnenburg, a Stanford University microbiologist who was not involved in the study. It's also unclear how the genetically altered bacteria survive from one generation of guts to the next.

"This is something we don't really know; we don't understand how it happens that well," he said.

Czjzek said it is quite possible that there are also North Americans not of Japanese ancestry with the ability to digest nori.

But sushi is a relatively recent introduction to North American cuisine, so it's unlikely that contemporary sushi eaters' gut flora would have been exposed to enough marine bacteria to pick up the genetic trait, said Sonnenburg, who wrote a commentary in Nature accompanying the study.

"I think this likely happened back when diets were much less sterile, and the seaweed was teeming with marine microbes," he said. "And I think probably the nori wrappers we find on sushi wraps in the States probably have a lot less microbial burden today."

Saturday, April 03, 2010

The Bushido Blade

The Bushido Blade (1979) 1 hour 30 minutes
Set in 19th century Japan, at the time of American Commodore Matthew Perry's (Richard Boone) opening of the ancient nation, Bushido Blade involves Perry's efforts to locate a sacred sword. The film co-stars the legendary Toshiro Mifune as the "Shogun Commander" and James Earl Jones as a whale harpooner who spouts philosophy.

This movie is so bad that it's good. It's so horrible that it is a supreme comedy. This movie is one of the cheesiest, crappiest movies I have ever seen but it had me laughing many times at the complete absurdity. The movie starts out on the USS Powhatan where the captain (Boone) is entertaining several of the shogun's samurai. I knew immediately what kind of movie this would be when the nights entertainment consisted of a bunch of dancing sailors in blackface. My jaw was on the floor when I saw that. Richard Boone had quite a performance in this film, appearing to be drunk throughout the entire movie.

As the shogun was prepared to present a sacred samurai sword to the visiting Americans, it was unfortunately stolen by a renegade daimyo lord opposed to any contact with the barbarian foreigners. The shogun's representatives state inexplicably that no treaty can be signed without the sacred sword. OK? Anyways, although the shogun's samurai state they will get the sword back, of course the American's think they can do the job better. So the captain sends three of his best sailors into Japan to get the sword back themselves because of course no one can get the job done as good as the Americans. And that's where the real hilarity begins. The sailors get separated, each encountering various adventures, including running into Darth Vader, I mean James Earl Jones, a whaler who is being held in captivity. One of the funniest scenes occurs when Vader initiates a bathing room brawl against their Japanese captors allowing one of the sailors, a big goofy redhead, to escape out the window. There are just too many damn funny scenes to mention and I don't want to give them all away. Although this is truly a horrible, horrible movie, I still recommend this just for the sheer hilarity.