Aizu-Wakamatsu is today a small, sleepy town, nestled in a cozy valley deep in the mountains of Fukushima Prefecture. It has a surprising number of tourist attraction for its size and remoteness, from ancient sake distilleries through cherry-blossom-filled castle gardens to skiing resorts and climbing routes on nearby Mount Bandai. It also has its share of famous people, either having born and lived in the city or passed through at one point.
This abundance stems from the city’s rich history as the capital of the powerful Aizu Domain, led by the Matsudaira family. The Matsudaira clan, ruling most of northern Honshu, spawned many sons, of which the most famous was one Ieyasu – who later took on the surname Tokugawa and became the first Shogun. Thus, the Matsudairas of Aizu became one of the most powerful clans in Japan, kindred to the shogun, and fiercely loyal to the Edo government.
It was to prove, of course, their downfall. The Shogunate lost the Boshin War, and the Aizu fought to the bitter end in and around the castle grounds. The defeat, and the harsh treatment they received afterwards, was a disaster from which neither the clan, nor the city, ever fully recovered. But the bloody Battle of Aizu did manage to produce two very different heroic figures in Japan’s history.
The first of these, and for many years far more popular ones, were the Byakkotai 19. The Byakkotai, or White Tigers were a reserve in Aizu army, a group of young samurai – boys, really, aged between 16 and 17. In the heat of the final battle, cut off from the castle, nineteen of these boys committed suicide on the slopes of Iimori Mountain.
The Japanese, always suckers for heroic sacrifice, naturally turned the Byakkotai first into a tool of war propaganda, and when that went out of fashion, a tourist attraction. All trips to Aizu-Wakamatsu had to include a visit to their graves at Iimori Mountain; local schoolchildren played out the story on festivals; and of course, Byakkotai Hello Kitty.
If any of that strikes you as tasteless and unnecessary, I have good news for you. The Byakkotai are no longer the only, or indeed, main heroes of Aizu. Thanks to the soaring popularity of a 2013 TV series based on her life, there’s a new boss in town, one that swept away the Byakkotai in the imaginations of the locals and took over all poster walls and souvenir stores – and this time it’s a woman.
Yamamoto Yaeko, or Niijima Yae, is one of the most bad-ass female characters not only in the history of Japan, but the world. Not just because of what she did during the Aizu War – there were a few other onna-bugeisha, women-samurai, at the final stage of the conflict – but also, and perhaps more importantly, how she lived out the rest of her life.
There was a streak of military brilliance in her family since the days of Yamamoto Kensuke, the famous strategist of the Warring States period. Her father was a gunnery instructor to the daimyo, and her brother, a child prodigy, was a scholar of Rangaku and military science. In any other Japanese family, at any other moment in time, Yae’s interest in guns would be dismissed as an improper fancy, but both her father and her brother soon noticed how earnest the girl was in her pursuit. Another lucky factor was the introduction to Japan of modern Western rifles, which were lighter, easier to use and more accurate than the heavy, bulky arquebuses of yore.
The Spencer Rifle, a US Civil War surplus gun, became Yae’s weapon of choice, and is now associated with her in the same way that famous swords are associated with their owners. With this rifle, and with a unit of artillery she also commanded, Yae, wearing male clothes and haircut, fought on the walls of Aizu Castle with remarkable skill and effect.
The castle fell, and the story of many Aizu warriors ends here, but not Yae. She was after all only 23 when the war ended, and had a long, fruitful life before her. In fact, what happened next is perhaps even more remarkable than her short stint as Aizu Amazon.
She moved to Kyoto in search of her brother, and met there a man called Jo Niijima, an Edo-born, America-educated Christian feminist missionary, whom she soon married. For the next fifteen years, they ran together a private school in Kyoto which was later to turn into a highly respectable University, and fought for tolerance and equality within Japan’s strict society. But not even that was enough for the ever high-spirited Yae, who in addition to all her duties studied both the difficult arts of tea and flower ceremonies in Kyoto’s famous establishments, Urasenke and Ikenobo, becoming a certified master of both later in life – as befitted an accomplished samurai.
After her husband’s death, Yae’s interests turned from taking lives to saving them. She became a chief nurse in the Japanese Red Cross, and led a group of 40 nurses in Japan’s increasingly violent wars with its neighbours: in both the Sino-Japanese War of 1894 and the Russo-Japanese War of 1905 she became so distinguished she received not one, but two Orders of the Precious Crown for her services to the nursing profession.
The fiery spirit was stubborn to leave Yae’s body. Indeed, she lived long enough to receive yet another award from Emperor Hirohito – the grandson of Emperor Meiji in whose name Aizu Castle had been razed when she was a girl – in 1928, and to witness her country descend into the war frenzy of early 1930’s.
Throughout the 86 years of her life, Yamamoto Yaeko was a sniper, a gunner and a samurai; a master of tea and flower ceremonies; a scholar and a civil rights fighter; and finally, a distinguished nurse. If there was ever a role model for strong-willed girls everywhere, it’s definitely Yae of Aizu.
PS: The TV drama I mentioned above can be seen in a few places on the internet, and I highly recommend it. It is one of several such series in a very laudable string of recent efforts by NHK to portray the strong and powerful women of Japan’s otherwise testosterone-awash history, from Tenshoin in 2008’s Atsuhime through Oeyo in 2011’s Go to last year’s Yae no Sakura.