Thursday 10 October 2013

Yae no Sakura 2

Hi again,
NHK's historical drama this year tells the story of local heroine Yae, who at the age of 22 and dressed as a man, fought with a Spencer rifle to defend Aizu Castle in 1868. I wrote about the early episodes on 17 February in my post Yae no Sakura
The action has now moved to Kyoto though 23% of Fukushima residents, me included, are still glued to the telly every Sunday night.

History is written by the victors and the generally accepted narrative of the Meiji Restoration is that revolutionaries from Satsuma (southern Kyushu), Choshu (southern Honshu) and Tosa (Shikoku) overthrew the Tokugawa shogunate and after 260 years opened the country to the outside world, heralding in a new era of modernisation and prosperity. Aizu have traditionally been the villains of the piece, linked in the popular imagination with the Shinsengumi who terrorised Kyoto, stigmatised as enemies of the emperor, and portrayed as die-hard supporters of the old regime. The fascination of this series is that it tells this famous period of history from the other side, from the point of view of the losers.

Here are a few scenes which were memorable for me:
  • Yae's first husband Kawasaki Shonosuke, a gunsmith who had studied the 'Dutch learning' in Tokyo, was played delightfully by actor Hasegawa Hiroki. After the fall of Aizu he was banished with the other Aizu samurai to the far north where they had to battle against cold and hunger. He got caught up in a scam when trying to procure food and died in Tokyo in difficult circumstances. Sad. Cried buckets.
  • Many times have I visited the Samurai House (Buke Yashiki) in Aizu and seen the suicide scene, women and children dressed in white kimono, and a soldier, a tall figure in a red wig. I never really knew who they were. They were the family of Saigo Tanomo (played in the drama by Koriyama character actor Nishida Takayuki). He was Aizu daimyo Katamori's most faithful retainer who in 1862 advised against taking on the post of guard of Kyoto as he saw, rightly as it turned out, that Aizu would get embroiled in the troubles which would lead to their ruin. Later he called for an early capitulation. But Katamori took his responsibilities to both the shogun and the Emperor very seriously and Saigo's pleas fell on deaf ears. Twenty one women in Saigo's household - including his wife, mother and five daughters - chose not to take refuge in the castle and committed suicide. The man in the red wig was Itagaki Taisuke (later founder of Japan's first political party) who generously put one young girl out of her misery. Over 240 Aizu women chose to die by their own hand rather than be captured.
  • I've no idea if this is true but in the drama, after the surrender, the proud samurai ladies scrubbed the floors and handed over a pristine castle - to the embarrassment of the enemy leaders who walked over the shiny floors in muddy boots!
  • Yae's older brother, Yamamoto Kakuma, is another hero of this story and was a remarkable man. He had studied in Tokyo under Katsu Kaishu and Sakuma Shozan and believed Japan shouldn't waste its energies on infighting but catch up with the West. He was injured and lost his sight in skirmishes in Kyoto and was later captured by Satsuma forces and thrown into prison. There he dictated his famous work Kanken which was a farsighted master plan for national reform covering such varied topics as government, parliament, education, currency, women's education, military, commerce, medicine etc. etc. and which came to the attention of the new government leaders, Saigo Takamori and Iwakura Tomomi. Kakuma himself, in spite of being crippled and blind, later served in the Kyoto local government. After Aizu fell he summoned his family to Kyoto. Yae married Niijima Jo and he helped them found Doshisha University and Women's College.
  • One of the sub plots of the drama is guns. In 1865 the American Civil War ended and weapons which were no longer needed came to Japan to be traded by James Glover and the like. Yae's family are gunsmiths and Kakuma's mission was to procure up-to-date weapons from abroad. One of the reasons for Aizu's downfall was that they just didn't have the fire power to compete with the superior weaponry of Satusma and Choshu.
  • The role of Saigo Takamori was played with panache by ageing rock star Kikkawa Koji. Always spoiling for a fight, but dissuaded by Katsu Kaishu from attacking Edo (Tokyo), he turned his attention to subjugating the north and later had a key role in the new government. But ten years later The Last Samurai acted as a focus for the disaffected samurai and made one last stand against the government forces. This was the Seinan War of 1877 in which he died. 
Finally, two footnotes to this story, not in the TV series.
First, the new government refused to give permission to bury the bodies of those who fell in Aizu, including all those women and children. Only six months later in the spring of 1869 was permission granted. This was the source of rancour between Aizu and Choshu which rankled for over a century.
Secondly, the Meiji government was dominated by leaders from Choshu and Satsuma. People from Aizu were not appointed to government and again this prejudice persisted until recent times. Instead, many Aizu survivors, like Yae and Kakuma, devoted their efforts to education and many went to study abroad.

Now the action of the series (which continues until December) has moved to Kyoto where Yae is building a new life with Jo. The story holds a strong message of recovery from disaster so has obvious parallels with today. It's also given a great boost to tourism with visitors to the castle up 50% over pre-disaster levels. So in addition to being a good yarn, the series has been very good for Fukushima.
P.S. If you want to read a blow by blow account of the series there's a translation of every episode in English at this site On The Tube

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