NB: Some of my earliest blogs no longer have their accompanying images but enjoy the copy!
Oh, you really should have seen this one coming. If you know me well enough, you will probably know that I have a not-so-secret historical obsession with a certain one-eyed samurai from Japanese history. As such, I decided to commemorate this by dedicating week 6 to Date Masamune. Why the number 6? You’ll find out soon enough.
The news story is the only one not related to this week’s theme, as this guy has been dead for quite a long time and as such has not been making the news recently!
Story of the Week: Yakutanegoyo trees – a new national monument?
Yakushima-cho, a designated UNESCO World Heritage site, is an island in the southern Kagoshima prefecture. It is known for its rainy weather and yakusugi trees; the late author Fumiko Hayashi famously wrote that it rained ’35 days in a month’ on Yakushima.
This beautiful island has been in the news recently as a volunteer group has been pressing the government to designate another natural national mounment, the yakutanegoyo trees. Assuming you are not a tree expert – these are a species of white pine that grow only on Yakushima and one other island, Tanegashima.
From pest damage, excessive logging since World War II and possibly border pollution from China, the grand yakutanegoyo are in serious decline. A volunteer group, led by Kenshi Tezuka, has conducted 118 surveys on the island and identified 1,896 trees on the small island.
Japan is going to be suffering from the effects of the Fukushima for years to come, as the pollution continues to sink into the soil and affect the environment and trade. Perhaps now is the best time to instil a new-found sense of pride in the country by celebrating such unique biodiversity.
Destination of the Week: Sendai
Known as Mori no Miyako (forest city) because of its greenery and tree-lined streets, Sendai is the largest city in the Tohoku region. It is also this blog’s first ‘northern’ Japanese city!
The daimyo Date Masamune relocated his capital to Sendai in 1600 and the city developed its historical significance from that point. The area was already called Sendai but the Chinese characters for the name were changed (Japanese writing was, of course, largely adopted from Chinese). The hill on which he established his castle, Aobayama, also had its characters changed so it meant ‘hermit on a platform’, referring to a mythical place in the Chinese mountains. His family ruled Sendai until 1889, when the Meiji government abolished the feudal han system and replaced it with Prefecture System.
Sendai is known as the city of trees because the han (a simple defintion would be feudal rule) encouraged residents to plant their own trees, to the extent that many shrines and houses had their own forests which they used for resources. Sadly, much of this greenery was lost during the bombing of WWII and even more so in the Fukushima earthquake. Despite this, it is still referred to as ‘the city of trees’.
I’ve heard Sendai being referred to ‘the Newcastle of Japan’. It’s very modern and has a large student population but, due to bombing in WWII, much of the historical buildings have been destroyed. It is a popular destination, however, despite its relative closeness to Fukushima, where the earthquake struck in March. Based on what I’ve read, a lot of foreign tourists mainly go there because they have heard of the samurai that made if famous. That’s totally why I want to go, too.
Fun fact: In the last round of the Sendai local elections, Date Masamune was used more or less as the mascot to encourage young people to vote. Below are two videos of how to successfully get people to vote. Furthermore, Date Masamune-themed buses and taxis, as well as limited edition tickets, were also floating around the city when the Sengoku Basara anime (a series that I will mention later in this blog) came out. I think the House of Commons should be taking notes…
Source for both videos: iwanumablog @ youtube
- Try to go to Sendai when the Tanabata Matsuri, the city’s major summer festival, or Aoba Matsuri, a more traditional Japanese one, is taking place
- Buy some of the local crafts, particularly washi paper, Tsutsumiyaki pottery and silk
- Visit as many Date Masamune-related sites as possible, from Aoba Castle to the museum that houses his iconic armour
- Forget to visit Matsushima Bay, a nearby beautiful viewpoint overlooking the sea
Date Masamune was well known for his ethics and being a patron of the arts. Despite an uneasy relationship with Tokugawa Ieyasu, he visited him on his death bed and read his own zen aphorism, which is still quoted today.
“Rectitude carried to excess hardens into stiffness; benevolence indulged beyond measure sinks into weakness.”
A simple translation of this would be not to indulge in indiscriminate charity, without being blinded by ideals of justice. Zen Buddhism was one of the main religions followed by samurai in the Sengoku period. It formed the philosophy of bushidō, the way of the warrior, which taught, in particular, self-discipline and preparation for death. In the context of Masamune and Ieyasu, this aphorism was most likely a reflection on Ieyasu’s own ruling style, namely his strictness but also patience. It shows that Masamune was not only a fierce warrior but also quite the philosopher.
I’m in danger of writing a dissertation-long essay so I’ll start off with something different this week. Here is a ‘Top Ten’ fact list of Date Masamune and why he was both a feared and respect warrior:
- As a child, Masamune contracted small pox which severely infected his eye. There are several stories as to how exactly he lost his eye; either he gouged it out himself as it was noted that the enemy might try to do the same in battle, that he had his retainer Katakura Kojūrō take it out for him, or that he had it taken out just so he looked more intimidating.
- He was the owner of one of the most iconic samurai helmets in Japanese history, complete with a crescent moon.
- His nickname in battle was ‘ dokuganryû’, meaning one-eyed dragon. No doubt a reference to both to his missing eye (covered with an eyepatch) and vicious fighting skills.
- He led his first campaign at the mere age of 14 against the Sōma family and won!
- After his installation as daimyo, he began ruthlessly attacking old neighbouring allies in a bid to extend his power. One of them, Hatekayama Yoshitsugu, ordered his men to kidnap his father, Terumune, in an unheard-of desperate attempt to reign him in. When Masamune surrounded the kidnappers, his father ordered him to kill them all even at the cost of his own life. His army did just this although Yoshitsugu escaped and, in revenge, Masamune went on to torture and execute the family of his father’s kidnappers.
- His mother, Yoshihime, favoured his younger brother Kojiro as successor of the family because of his deformed eye. It is alleged that she tried to poison him and Masamune then killed his brother to eliminate the competition, forcing her into exile.
- Masamune was a patron of Christianity, most likely because he sought European technology rather than because he was a convert himself (much like Oda Nobunaga). He funded an envoy to establish relations with the Pope in Rome, Hasakura Sunenaga, although when he returned after a 7 year voyage Japan was experiencing a fierce persecution of Christians and he was burned to death. Ieyasu’s anti-Christian campaign sat very uncomfortably with Masamune but he was not powerful enough to challenge him, although it was rumoured that he was building his relations with Christians abroad to do just this.
- He was very interested in other countries and wanted to learn from them, sending exploration ships all over the world. The most famous of these was the Date Maru, which was built using European techniques. He was the first lord to fund such expeditions as far as Mexico and Spain.
- He expanded trade and travel in the previously remote Tohoku region. Even during the Edo period, when Japan was shut off to the rest of the world, ports remained open in that area and tourism thrived for the next 270 years.
- Masamune had six male concubines. Believe it or not, this was actually a great indicator of power for in Sengoku-era Japan. Many samurai followed Confucian philosophy, which was very hierarchical; in particular, men ‘mixing’ with women too frequently were endangering their own masculinity. As such, it was perfectly acceptable and perhaps even expected that the more powerful daimyo should have a couple of male concubines.
I found these on a blog which documented a lovely lady’s journey around Japan (yes, I am jealous). She went to Sendai and I believe this is where she bought this amazing bento box. Notice the crescent shaped moon helmet?
I’ll get this out of the way: I lovelovelovelovelovelove LOVE this series. SO much!
You’ve probably cleverly latched on to the fact that Sengoku Basara is based on the Sengoku era, right? Well, actually, I’m still not sure if that’s the case. The creators of the series obviously flicked through a history book, picked out a few samurai and said ‘put the guns on’. The result? Honda Tadakatsu became a gundam and Date Masamune learned to speak broken Engrish.
Sengoku Basara began as a video game series under Capcom and now has two series (26 episodes in total) and a movie under its belt. The third game is available for the PS3 and Wii in the UK, as is the DVD of the first series. To give you an idea about how much I love this series, I deliberately timed a holiday to Tokyo (with two like-minded Basara nut cases) so it coincided with the release of the film. We saw it three times. I defend this decision by pointing out that anime movies are rarely released in the UK and it was so worth seeing my favourite show on the big screen.
So, what’s it about? To put it bluntly, samurai fighting each other and explosions with little bits of history thrown in. The plot of the first series follows the various daimyo uniting to bring down Oda Nobunaga and in the second series they do the same thing when Toyotomi Hideyoshi comes along. Obviously, this never ever happened. The movie (which may well have been the conclusion of the series) is focused on the Battle of Sekigahara and, without spoiling much, it did NOT go down like that.
Sengoku Basara is not so much about the plot as it is about the characters and action. Daimyo such as Date Masamune and Takeda Shingen are actually portrayed relatively accurately, whereas others like Hideyoshi are really not. That said, the video game takes the more historically-accurate route because actual Sengoku-era battles take place and relationships between certain samurai make a lot more sense. The anime effectively created the rivalry between Date Masamune and Sanada Yukimura, another samurai I will probably cover in a few weeks, whereas the game seems to have done at least some research into Tokugawa Ieyasu and Ishida Mitsunari.
As for Date Masamune’s weapon in this series – he wields six swords. Is this possible? No. Should we question it? No.
It seems this is quite the Marmite show. You either love it or really don’t like (I can’t bring myself to use the word ‘hate’) it. If you are looking for a historically-accurate and plot-driven series, Sengoku Basara is not for you as it will just drive you mad from its lack of physics and sense. If you want something that’s just fun, intentionally silly yet inexplicably manly, then it’s right up your street.
Score: 10/10 (my approval for Sengoku Basara is off the scale! That said, I will admit it’s not everyone’s cup of tea)
Weird Thing of the Week: Talking alarm clocks
Japan is the leader in bizarre products and its alarm clocks are no exception. It’s not really that surprising that this hasn’t caught on elsewhere in the world when you compare Japanese and western shows.
From Pikachu to Ultraman, more or less every popular anime character will have been the voice of an alarm clock at some stage. Not to mention, given how flashy and loud these shows often are, it makes sense why those characters are chosen for the alarm noise. I can’t think of any fictional or real life British characters that would make good alarm clocks, except perhaps Vinnie Jones.
Anime shows have a lot of shouty catchphrases and it therefore gives me great pleasure in showcasing my very own Japanese talking alarm clock. Of course, it’s Date Masamune (the anime version, not the historically accurate one). In the Sengoku Basara show, his character shouts a lot of nonsensical Engrish and this is why he makes such a hilarious alarm clock.
Even though talking alarm clocks in general are very expensive, I consider it an investment. This was the only one left in the shop, amongst an array of other talking anime alarm clocks, and I’d seen it online months ago but it was out of stock. Therefore, it was destiny!
Major points if you can understand everything he says the first time round.
Source: un1337unhax @ Youtube
Recipe of the week: Zundamochi
Sendai has a number of delicacies and, being a northern region, is most famous for its fish dishes. When you go to Sendai, be sure to try:
- Gyūtan – grilled beef tongue
- Sasakamaboko – a type of fish sausage
- Zundamochi – sweet green soybean paste eaten with glutinous rice balls
- Mochi 8 pack (can be bought at the Japan Centre and other UK websites)
- 300g edamame (can be bought at the Japan Centre and other UK websites)
- 200g sugar
- 100ml water