An Emperor’s Funeral Procession and the Assassination Site at Sakurada Gate

This year marks the 27th year of the era called Heisei in Japanese chronology. Throughout Japanese history new era names have been promulgated to mark an extraordinary occasion or event, such as the enthronement of an emperor. The present emperor, Akihito, ascended the throne in January 1989, upon the death of his father, Hirohito, posthumously called Showa, the name of the era in which he reigned.

Emperor Showa reigned for over 62 years, the longest in an imperial line spanning 125 generations. At his death at 87, he was the longest-living emperor in Japanese history. His funeral ceremonies, including a somber procession which I witnessed among hundreds of thousands of his bereaved subjects gathered in the streets outside the compound of the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, were grand affairs befitting a man who during his lifetime had been worshipped as a god.

The Imperial Palace occupies the grounds of the former castle of fifteen generations of shoguns, including Tokugawa Iéyasu, the founder of the Tokugawa Bakufu, the military regime which ruled Japan for two and a half centuries. The castle was surrendered by the vanquished Bakufu to the new imperial government in the spring of 1868, as a result of peace talks between Katsu Kaishu and Saigo Takamori, leaders of the respective sides. After that the illustrious Emperor Meiji, Showa’s grandfather, occupied the inner-palaces of the castle, including the Main Citadel, which had been the residence of the shoguns, and the West Citadel, previously occupied by the families of the shoguns’ sons. These and most of the original castle structures have been lost to fire, including the gate called Sakurada-mon, renowned as the site of the assassination in 1860 of the shogun’s regent, Ii Naosuké, the most powerful man in Japan.

Sakurada Gate was rebuilt during the reign of Emperor Showa’s father. I have visited the site many times. Standing before the gate, I have tried to conjure up in my mind’s eye the scene on that unseasonably snowy morning in late spring over a century and a half ago, when the regent was cut down by a band of eighteen samurai representing Imperial Loyalism. They killed him for his alleged irreverence to the emperor and treachery in having concluded foreign trade treaties without the emperor’s blessing, and his subsequent harsh treatment of feudal lords, nobles of the Imperial Court, and fellow Imperial Loyalists.

Since the palace is located at the city center, one might best visit Sakurada-mon during the still of an early spring morning – and imagine a soft snow falling:

A sudden pistol shot; bloodcurdling screams of the regent’s bodyguards and assailants; the clanging and banging of the tempered steel of their swords; the dull, thick sound of steel cutting through human flesh, then a beheading, men fleeing with the head, others dying – at the onset of an age of terror and the beginning of the end of the Tokugawa Bakufu.

Standing amid a sea of humanity to catch a glimpse of the emperor’s funeral procession, I found myself wondering if the spirits of Ii Naosuké and the others who had died on that day were not among us, to witness that epochal event on that cold winter morning nearly 129 years after the infamous Incident Outside Sakurada Gate.

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Read more about Ii Naosuke’s assassination in Samurai Revolution,a comprehensive history of the fall of the Tokugawa Bakufu.



Writing Vs. Book Promotion

Over the past few months I’ve done something that I have not done in many years: I’ve put aside my writing to promote it. From a reader’s perspective, it might sound blasphemous; from the writer’s perspective it’s an imperative – which I ignored for around ten years while writing Samurai Revolution and my next book, Samurai Assassins, completed earlier this year but not yet published.

And so, while planning strategy for the Sakamoto Ryoma Film Project which I recently announced through an Open Letter to “all Ryoma fans,” I’ve presented Samurai Revolution at two venues in Washington state this week: Kinokuniya Bookstore in Seattle and A Book For All Seasons in Leavenworth; and I have another presentation scheduled at Kinokuniya in San Francisco on August 1.

Through these events I’ve rediscovered the pleasure of talking about this history and my books with interested people. Two such people are kendo instructor Aniceto Seto and his student Lynn Miyauchi, whom I had the pleasure of meeting at the Seattle event. Both of them brought copies of my past books for me to sign, including hard cover copies of Ryoma: Life of a Renaissance Samurai, though it’s been out of print for over ten years. It is through people like Mr. Seto and Ms. Miyauchi that I am reminded of another imperative: that I really must get back to my writing as soon as possible.

seattle kino july 18 with readers

Signing copies for Aniceto Seto and Lynn Miyauchi


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Takasugi Shinsaku’s House

shinsaku's house

Takasugi Shinsaku, the military leader of Choshu’s revolutionary forces in the war against the Bakufu in 1866, resented the coerced foreign trade treaties unilaterally concluded by the Bakufu in the summer of 1858. A favorite student of Yoshida Shoin, Takasugi had been a staunch advocate of “expel the barbarians” until he realized that it would be impossible to do so without first overthrowing the Bakufu, which he blamed for letting the foreigners in. The realization came during a trip to Shanghai in 1862, briefly recounted in my essay posted on this website and in more detail in Samurai Revolution.

Given Takasugi’s natural resentment of the foreign intruders, I was at once amused and moved by a comment from an old woman in his hometown of Hagi. It was during one of my trips to that historic city in Yamaguchi Prefecture, in August of either 1986 or 1987 (I can’t remember which). At that time I visited the historic houses of both Takasugi and Katsura Kogoro, the political leader of the Choshu revolutionaries. The old woman was selling copies of Takasugi’s biography (by Furukawa Kaoru, published in 1971) in front of his house. She must have been in her eighties – which means Takasugi would have been of her grandfather’s generation. It is entirely possible that her family lived in Hagi for many generations; if so, it is likely that she grew up hearing stories of Takasugi. When I bought a copy of the book, she smiled and told me that Shinsaku would be tickled pink to know that an American was buying his biography!

Takasugi Shinsaku

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Samurai Revolution is the only biography of Katsu Kaishu in English.




Katsu Kaishu’s “praiseworthy anecdote” during the ceremony of the surrender of Edo Castle

Kaishu old man

While preparing my presentations of Samurai Revolution at Kinokuniya Bookstore in Seattle (July 18), the public library in Leavenworth, Washington (July 24), and Kinokuniya Bookstore in San Francisco (August 1), I remembered one of my favorite comments from Katsu Kaishu in his old age. The setting was the formal surrender of Edo Castle to the new Imperial government in the Fourth Month of Keio 4 (1868), four months after the abolition of the Tokugawa Bakufu by the new Imperial government – i.e., The Restoration of Imperial Rule of Old. The ceremony took place in the interior of the citadel, attended by samurai of various feudal domains including Satsuma and Choshu. As I wrote in Samurai Revolution (excluding footnotes):

Kaishū did not attend the ceremony in which the castle was officially surrendered. Rather, he went to navy headquarters on the bay, where he had some of his men climb to the rooftop to watch and listen for gunshots coming from the direction of the castle. If anything happened, he wrote, he was prepared to report to the Imperial Army and accept the responsibility by taking his own life. “Fortunately, nothing happened”—the ceremony was concluded without incident.

But there was a “praiseworthy anecdote” which Kaishū heard from [his friend] Ōkubo Ichiō. Saigō, it seems, remained typically placid throughout the ceremony:

“…[w]hat was truly amazing was that when the formalities began for surrendering the castle, Saigō dozed off. Then when the ceremony was finished and the other representatives were leaving, he just sat there calmly. Ichiō, who was near him, couldn’t stand it. “Saigō-san, Saigō-san,” he said, waking him up, “the ceremony is over and everyone’s leaving.” At which Saigō, a bit startled, rubbed his sleepy face then calmly left. Ichiō was struck with admiration. What an audacious fellow! Exhausted after dozens of days, he took the opportunity to doze off while the castle was being surrendered—truly unbelievable!”

“And so,” Kaishū concluded the above account, told in January 1896, “that’s why he’s at the top of the list of the great men of the Restoration.” (p. 500)

[The photo of Katsu Kaishu was taken in the garden at his Hikawa estate during the final years of his life.]

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Samurai Revolution is the only biography of Katsu Kaishu in English.



My Favorite Japanese History Writers: Part I

The best writers of Japanese history are, quite naturally, Japanese. Nearly all of them concentrate on the most important era in modern Japanese history: the final fifteen years of the Tokugawa Shogunate, from the arrival of Perry in the summer of 1853, which kicked off the revolution, to the fall of the Tokugawa Shogunate in late 1868. Japanese writers call this era “Bakumatsu,” literally “end of the shogunate.” I describe it as “the samurai revolution at the dawn of modern Japan.”

Japanese writers concentrate on the Bakumatsu not only because it is the beginning of modern Japan, but also because it is by far the most interesting and spellbinding era in Japanese history. In writing about this history they naturally focus on the most powerful and spellbinding personalities of the era. These include such household names as Sakamoto Ryoma, Saigo Takamori, Katsu Kaishu, Tokugawa Yoshinobu, Takasugi Shinsaku, Yoshida Shoin, Katsura Kogoro, Takechi Hanpeita, Nakaoka Shintaro, Okubo Toshimichi, Sakuma Shozan, Yamanouchi Yodo, Tokugawa Nariaki, and last but not least the Shinsengumi, an organization whose leaders, Kondo Isami and Hijikata Toshizo garner the most attention. Readers of my books are familiar with all of these personalities and more.

When I started studying this history over thirty years ago, I was living in Tokyo. At first I read everything I could get my hands on about the Bakumatsu. It didn’t take long before I discovered that there was a gaping dearth of material in English about the Bakumatsu. So I naturally focused on Japanese writers, and after a few years of reading I was able to discern the best among them. I adopted their approach to writing this history, including their focus on the most powerful and spellbinding personalities. These Japanese writers have been my teachers throughout my writing career. My debt to them is enormous.

Following is the first part of a series of articles in which I introduce these writers. (In keeping with normal Japanese practice, their names are presented with family name first.)

Hirao Michio (平尾道雄) (1900 – 1979) : Hirao Michio might be called the “godfather” of Tosa historians during the 20th century. His biographies of Sakamoto Ryoma, Nakaoka Shintaro, and Yamanouchi Yodo are definitive. His two most well-known books on Ryoma are probably Sakamoto Ryoma: Kainetai Shimatsuki (坂本龍馬 海援隊始末記) and Ryoma no Subete (龍馬のすべて). Of his writings on Nakaoka, I have mostly referred to Nakaoka Shintaro: Rikuentai Shimatsuki (中岡新太郎 陸援隊始末記). (The “Kaientai” in the title the first Ryoma biography cited refers to Ryoma’s Naval Auxiliary Corps in Nagasaki. The “Rikuentai” in the title of the Nakaoka biography refers to Nakaoka’s Land Auxiliary Corps in Kyoto.) Hirao’s history of the Shinsengumi, Teihon Shinsengumi Shiroku (定本新撰組史録 = The Definitive History of the Shinsengumi), was published in 1928, shortly after Shimozawa Kan’s more famous Shinsengumi Shimatsuki (新選組始末記). Like Hirao’s other books, it is invaluable. I referred to it while writing Shinsengumi: The Shogun’s Last Samurai Corps. I have also referred to Hirao’s Ishin Ansatsu Hiroku (維新暗殺秘録), a collection of accounts of historically significant assassinations during the Bakumatsu.

The closest I ever got to actually meeting Hirao Michio was vicariously through Ogura Katsumi, then-curator of The Sakamoto Ryoma Memorial Museum in Kochi. Mr. Ogura, a former newscaster at a TV station in Kochi, served as the moderator of a symposium about Sakamoto Ryoma held in Yonago City, Tottori, in May 2002. I was invited as a panelist and stayed at the same hotel as Mr. Ogura, who briefly shared with me memories of Mr. Hirao and also of Marius Jansen, the Princeton historian perhaps best known for his biography Sakamoto Ryoma and the Meiji Restoration. I regret that I never had the chance to meet Prof. Jansen, whom Mr. Ogura had met in Kochi. While the two of us spoke at our hotel, Mr. Ogura told me that my “Japanese pronunciation is better” than Prof. Jansen’s – mere flattery, I’m sure! Mr. Ogura’s books include Ryoma ga Nagai Tegami wo Kaku Toki (龍馬が長い手紙を書く時 = When Ryoma Wrote Long Letters). Mr. Ogura passed away in May 2005.

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