We traveled a lot through Germany lately: both its past and present borders. It is nearly impossible to travel around Europe without stumbling upon traces of Germany’s past glories and sins. From Riga to London, from a Hansa outpost on Aland to the Imperial Trieste, the German-speaking peoples have left an unforgettable imprint on the continent long before the atrocities of the 20th century; and having traveled first around the Baltic, then around Central Europe this year, I had plenty opportunity to ponder this grand nation’s history.
So the new BBC Radio 4 podcast series, Germany: Memories of a Nation, drew my attention instantly – especially since it’s headlined by none other than Neil MacGregor. A few years ago, the director of British Museum attempted to tell the story of the entire world in 100 objects. Now, he is retelling the story of Germany – in 30 objects. This new series is just as intriguing and engaging, and possibly even more eye-opening, since it brings out the little-known German art and architecture from the shadow of France and Italy. Holbein, Riemenschneider, Caspar David Friedrich are just few of the names covered, among subjects that range from Stasi to Charlemagne’s empire – with the Holocaust, naturally, underlying it all, as it forever must.
The series is half-way through now, and you can catch it on its podcast page here. Go hear it. Now.
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.
On 21st November 1859, a 29-year old youth knelt down before the Edo executioner, calm and proud, clothes straight and clean. He asked for a piece of paper to write down the final message:
Parents’ love for their child is greater than that of a child to his parents
How will my parents grieve to hear of today?
Such were the last words of Yoshida Shoin, a teacher, a poet, a conspirator – a revolutionary. One of the many larger-than-life characters spawned by the chaotic Bakumatsu period, Yoshida was among the most tragic, and most influential ones. His candle shone brief, but bright, and ignited the flames that burned the old order into cinders from which modern Japan sprouted.
Bakumatsu, the end of Shogun’s Japan, was not a calm time. Political disagreements were more likely to be resolved with a sword’s blade or the blast of a cannon rather than debate. Born in this environment, Yoshida Shoin’s legacy was an unlikely one, but proved far more resilient than that of any of his more militant peers. For Yoshida was no warrior; all his students remember him in the same way: fragile, quiet, peaceful. But make no mistake: he was no peace-lover, not the MLK or Gandhi of his time. He was strong-willed and determined to overthrow the Shogunate’s corrupt rule, with violence if need be.
That he managed to achieve so much before his untimely death, was a mark of his singular genius. A scholar of Chinese philosophy since the age of 8, advisor to the daimyo of Choshu at the age of 18, student of the great Sakuma Shozan at the age of 20, at the age of 27 he returned to his home town of Hagi – after witnessing personally the arrival of Perry’s Black Ships and various spells of imprisonment by the Shogunate officials – to establish a private school, based on Western patterns. In there, he taught not only modern economics, politics and art of war, but first and foremost he tried to instill in his students the dream of social equality and democracy: a dream of a nation not divided into immovable castes of warriors, merchants and peasants, but one where men of all classes can participate in the body politic freely, under the benevolent command of the Imperial government – ideas revolutionary not only in Japan at the time.
His teaching lasted less than two years, but, in the familiar, Christ-like pattern, those last two years of his life, ending in a violent death, were far more important than anything else he had done before. He may have died himself, executed for taking part in a minor assassination plot which never came to fruition – but his students – his disciples – from that period were instrumental in the revolution that swept the Shogun, and everything that happened after that. Their names are carved into the Japanese history forever, and are familiar to anyone with even passing interest in the Meiji era (though not all are remembered fondly today, especially by Japan’s neighbours). Takasugi Shinsaku, founder of Japan’s first modern troops, the kiheitai. Ito Hirobumi, Japan’s first and, some say, greatest Prime Minister; Yamagata Aritomo and Omura Masujiro, the two fathers of Japanese armed forces; Kido Takayoshi, the great reformer and constitutionalist; Nomura Yasushi, Minister of Interior in Ito’s cabinet; Inoue Kaoru, Minister of Foreign Affairs in the same. And many others, some of whom did not live long enough to make such an impact, but who were nonetheless crucial in the events of the period. All they had in common was one thing: they all were, at one point or other, students of a 28-year old man from Hagi, Yoshida Shoin.
Waiting for the executioner’s sword in a prison cell in Edo, Yoshida foretold his unending legacy clearly, in the poem written two days before his death:
Even if my body falls on the Musashi Plain *) The spirit of Yamato will remain forever.
*) Musashi Plain is archaic and poetic name for the area around Edo/Tokyo
On Monday, when most of the Western world celebrates Armistice Day (and Japan celebrates Pocky Day) Poland has its Independence Day.
But that’s not the reason for this post. The main reason is that I’ve stumbled on YouTube upon an old TV movie, “Squaring the Circle” which I saw for the last time as a politically curious teenager back in Poland, on a secretly pirated VHS tape. I didn’t understand as much of it as I do now, and I don’t understand as much of it now as I probably should… but it’s a great movie for more reasons than one.
First, the cast and the crew are amazing in their own right: the script was written by the inimitable Tom Stoppard, the director was Mike Hodges – of Get Carter and Flash Gordon fame. The star-studded cast included Bernard Hill (Lord of the Rings), Richard Crenna (Rambo), Tom Wilkinson (Full Monty) and other classic British actors of the era. The script is a typical Stoppard: a mixture of hard historical observations, swift dialogue and comic surrealism. The production is very theatrical – all sets, apart from the Black Sea beach, are built in one studio, which plays at the same time a communist party assembly, Walesa’s private apartment, and a striking shipyard.
The characterizations are stunning, although that can probably only be appreciated by a Pole, or a historian of the time; you’ll have to take my word for it, but the characters are instantly recognizable to anyone who paid attention to Polish politics in the 1980s and early 90s. Not only the big star Walesa, but more obscure (abroad) characters like Kuron, Mazowiecki, Gwiazda – and even the communist leaders of the time – are played beautifully, with all their idiosyncrasies and ticks replayed to the dot; what makes it specially touching now is that most of these people are today, sadly, dead (Mazowiecki had just had his funeral last week).
Second reason why the picture is so important is as a historical document. It was made in 1983/84 – when the Martial Law had barely been lifted, when many of the main characters were still in prison, before Gorbachev and Perestroika, before anyone knew how things would end (in fact, there was still a very real possibility that it would all go tits up) – and, crucially, before the political wars of the 1990s destroyed the image of Solidarity and obfuscated the events of 1980/81. In that manner the movie is almost like a Gospel: a second-hand account of historical events, but as close to eyewitness as was ever possible. Nobody in Poland could make such a movie at the time, and by the time we could, it was too late: the hindsight, pettiness and personal animosities have obscured the truth. Not to mention, we didn’t have a Tom Stoppard to write it.
To anyone interested in Europe’s history of the late 20th century, this is a treat. To anyone interested in Poland’s recent history and politics, this is an obligatory viewing.
Two very important people were born on February 17th and February 18th. Important for Japan, for science – and for the events described in my “The Year of the Dragon” books.
In 1796, on February 17th, a child was born into the family of von Siebolds, Wurzburg doctors and professors of medicine. Christened Philipp Franz Balthasar, the boy studied natural sciences under some of the best names at the time, and by 1820, he became a medical doctor.
A friend invited him to join the Dutch Navy, and in 1822 Philipp Von Siebold embarked on his first journey to the Orient, on board of a Dutch frigate Ariana. It was to be the most important decision of his life; while recovering from illness at the Batavian governor’s villa, he impressed his peers so much they invited him to visit the secret jewel in the Dutch colonial crown: the Dejima Outpost in Japan.
He arrived in Nagasaki on August 11, 1823 as the new resident physician and scientist. The mutual first impressions must have been great: von Siebold stayed in Japan for the next seven years, establishing a medical school and teaching modern Western science to 50 students; in turn, the Japanese taught him their customs, and welcomed him among themselves as equal. Eventually, as often happened with the lonely residents of Dejima far away from home, he found love: a Nagasaki woman by the name of Otaki.
Siebold’s legacy today lies mostly in his botanical interests; his collection of Japanese flora was unparalleled at the time. His name is remembered in many of the plant species he first described for the benefit of the West. Alas, his varied interests proved his downfall, when in 1826 he was discovered to be in possession of detailed maps of Japan and accused of spying. In 1829 he was forced to leave Nagasaki, abandoning his wife and his two year old daughter, Ine. He had to wait thirty years before the transforming Japan allowed him to return. By then, Ine had grown up to become Japan’s first female doctor, and established a gynecology clinic in Nagasaki.
One of Siebold’s 50 students was another birthday boy: Keisuke Ito. Born February 18th in 1803 in Nagoya, thanks to the knowledge he had gained in Nagasaki and his own talent, Keisuke became one of early modern Japan’s most prominent physicians. In 1852 he returned to his homeland to study smallpox – and developed an effective vaccine to the disease which ravaged Japan for centuries, killing peasants and Emperors alike. In 1868 he established a medical school in Nagoya which formed the basis of what is now Nagoya University. By the time he died at the grand age of 98 (only two years before the death of his mentor’s daughter), he was a baron and the professor of University of Tokyo; his long life having spanned the age of greatest change and turmoil in Japan’s history.
I lived through the 80’s on the “wrong” side of the Iron Curtain. Like the West, we always knew the world would end in a nuclear holocaust. We were taught civil defence in schools: how to recognize siren signals, what to do in case of a blast (not much). There was a nuclear shelter at my school. The official war doctrine was of course secret, but enough of it got through to know that Warsaw would be one of the first targets. It was too strategically important; its main thoroughfares and rail lines were built for the sole purpose of taking Soviet tanks from East to West as fast as possible.
Both sides had their own cultural reactions to the fear. In Poland we treated the apocalypse with humour, making mostly wacky, surreal post-apocalyptic comedies.The US movies that we were getting through on bootleg VHS tapes, and later were even shown on TV (as a warning, I suppose) – like War Games – focused on the military or action side of the conflict, rather than the aftermath. The main exception was the terrifying The Day After.
The Brits, uncharacteristically, seem to have lost all their sense of humour in the 80’s. I suppose being faced with total annihilation makes one stop quipping for a while.
Here are the two most important movies of the era: Where the Wind Blows and Threads. Warning: they are drastic and bleak, and likely to spoil your Christmassy mood for good. You probably really don’t want to watch them. But they serve as a tragic reminder of how close we got to the real end of the world.
This would be no Mayan Apocalypse. There would be no heroes to stop that asteroid. This was the real deal – and somehow, miraculously, we survived.
If you want to be thankful to any deity for anything these Christmas, be thankful for that.
WHEN THE WIND BLOWS:
and the one I remember watching as a kid, the American THE DAY AFTER:
Today is Tanaka Hisashige‘s 213th birth anniversary. You may not have heard about him, but Google found it fitting to celebrate it with a special animated Doodle – and I found his achievements important enough to not only put him in my books, but also make him the first character my readers encounter. Yes, it’s Master Tanaka from the Prologue to The Shadow of Black Wings. Master inventor and brilliant designer of the late Edo period, the Karakuri Giemon and a man who may, in a long run, be responsible for the laptop you read this on (provided it’s a Toshiba laptop).
A self-taught genius at first, young Hisashige came to fame creating the karakuri – Japanese automatons, which were then all the rage among the aristocracy. An example of one is what you see in the doodle above. But the dolls were just a novelty, and not enough to make Tanaka famous. He moved to Kyoto to study Rangaku – the “Dutch Knowledge” – and quickly became one of its finest scholars.
His achievements were unparalleled at the time. With only limited access to the Western science, he reverse-engineered many devices, and created others from scratch, using just his ingenuity and some Dutch drawings. He built a steam locomotive and a steam ship, a reverberatory furnace and telegraphic instruments. His Myriad Year Clock, which plays such an important role in “The Shadow…”, was a world-class masterpiece of precision mechanics.
Like Brunel on the other side of the globe, Tanaka embodied his era of fast change and technological revolution. Even with the meagre means at his disposal at the time, he was creating things which easily matched the achievements of some of his Western contemporaries. A Google Doodle is the least we can do to commemorate his life.
And what does it all have to do with Toshiba? Well, Hisashige’s son, Tanaka Daikichi, continuing his father’s work, established in 1881 the Tanaka Engineering Works in Tokyo. The company moved to Shibaura district and changed its name to Shibaura Engineering Works and finally, in 1939 – to Tokyo Shibaura. To-Shiba. So yes, that laptop of yours? A direct descendant of Tanaka’s automatons and clocks!
The book “The Shadow of Black Wings” is now available on Amazon.jp