Donjon; Daimyo; Japanese Castle

Matsumae Daimyos of Japan’s North Hinterlands

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When I was researching my book, The Secret Life of Concubines, I was interested in setting the story in a portion of Japan not as well known. I had seen the movie Silk, and my imagination was immediately captured by snow on pine. Hokkaido was that outpost that I chose to set my series. When I was looking around for inspiration for my daimyo-antagonist character, Matsumae couldn’t have been more perfect.


Though the character of Matsumae Yoshinobu is fictional, his backstory is one of rebellion and going it alone. The Matsumae ruled a portion of the island of Hokkaido, “Ezo” as it was known in the 1600s, and were given a unique fiefdom from the shogun. Most of the territory was wild, impenetrable forest. The native peoples called Ainu had settled it for years and were down as far as the Kuril Islands. The Ainu were tribesmen, completely different to the Japanese. They lived off the land, hunted and were considered unkempt and inferior. In exchange for protection of the northern borders against Russian and Ainu incursions, the daimyo were given a free hand. This was huge. It meant that the Matsumae didn’t have to travel every other year in a costly tribute journey like most other daimyo. They were left alone and they developed a thick skin.


The life was hard. Rice didn’t grow, they had to import their rice because winters were long, and the Matsumae relied on trade with the Ainu, of which they ran several taikin outposts as they began to subject the native peoples. Historians have noted that Matsumae daimyo are weak, inconsequential and occupied an anomaly in Edo’s otherwise centralized system of daimyo management. The shogun needed them. He was across the Straits on another island, Honshu, and that made administration of the hinterlands difficult. The northern borders were extremely important especially when Russia began to make more trips into Japan, and by the 18h century, there was real fear that they meant something more sinister.


In 1792, a seminal voyage from the Russians convinced the Edo government that the Russians were up to no good, that they had reason to suspect conquest. A Russian ship led by an officer of Finnish-descent, Adam Laxman landed in Hakodate and wintered at Matsumae castle. They demanded trade, and needed supplies. They pulled out papers signed by their Empress giving them authority to offer trade with the shogun. They had Japanese castaways with them that had washed up on Russian shores. They wanted to return them as a sign of goodwill. Europe was in flux. The French Revoltion infected the Russian Empress with paranoia who suspected the castaways as spies, but that was beside the point. The Russians meant to leverage them. It was all for naught. What started as a “friendship mission” was viewed with disdain and hostility. The daimyo met with the Russian ship, but told them they were unwelcome to trade. He gave them a paper that said they should go to Nagasaki if they wished to return and one ship a year would be recognized. This paper has been debated for centuries. The truth is, the Japanese were really calling the Russians bluff, and didn’t expect they would return.


The trip was considered a disaster. The Russians lingered through a never-ending winter with meager supplies and no trade treaty, but as the first Russian voyage to step foot in Northern Japan, they were treated somewhat decently. They didn’t help themselves to the women of Matsumae, and they behaved when they were told to leave in spring. But the threat was there. It was real and the Matsumae daimyo performed a valuable service in keeping the Russian bear from marching on Edo.

Ronin for Hire

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A man is a samurai first, the blade is his lover.


So what happens when a samurai is shut out of work? There’s no unemployment line, right? Starvation? Decline? That’s exactly what happened during the twilight era of the samurai. After the Tokugawa installed themselves as shogun and reigned for nearly 300 years, Japan began to settle down. There was inter-clan warfare but the large-scale battles receded. Armies dwindled. Daimyo fortunes began to dry up. Samurai were let go from their castle towns. They became masterless, or ronin. They had no one to serve, forced to wander the countryside in search of opportunities.

Hiro Watanabe

But sometimes they left over a disagreement with their daimyo. Perhaps they suffered dishonor, they went against their lord or held to a conviction they knew was right. Sometimes the daimyo was killed and that left a samurai masterless. Sometimes a samurai even committed seppuku if his grief was great enough or he made a promise to do so.

47 Ronin Japanese Poster 1

The 47 Ronin is a dramatic tale of extreme fealty and revenge. This most famous samurai story certainly entertains. The term ronin carries an air of romance and glamor but during the Edo period, ronin were often a dangerous nuisance to be avoided. They acquired reputations as bullies who strutted along busy streets looking for provocation and willing to split heads like melons over the price of tea. You could tell by the half-mad stare of the eyes and the pompous, almost dandified way they carried themselves. Sometimes ronin are portrayed as cheats who stuck noses in business dealings for the privilege of taking a cut for not murdering you. Ronin was feared, but he was laughed at behind his back.


The real truth is somewhere in the middle. Samurai pay was small. It barely covered living expenses. It was once considered a disgrace for a samurai to work the merchant trade. But some ronin made respectable livings working as merchants, growing vegetables in secret or scouting new talent for the brothels. Some could be seen swaggering up the streets with umbrellas stuffed under their arms, and their swords struck at their side. They were not comfortable but they survived, they adapted and struggled to retain their dignity. And that’s my definition of a samurai any day.


Nothing says Japan Like Noh

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The Greeks had their tragedies. The Romans a love for gore. The Japanese have Noh.


Well not quite as old as the ancient world, Noh’s classical drama has been performed continuously since the 13th Century. Like kabuki in it’s earliest inceptions, men play both male and female roles. Masks are a big part of the performance that can last all day.


If you went to a traditional Noh in the past, you would see five plays mingled with short, humorous courses to cleanse the palate. Today, Noh is performed in two plays and a humor set, a kyogen, set in between.

Noh Young Jap

The plays are traditional and codified by the family foundation, new plays occasionally celebrate history and welcome innovation. There have also been fusion Noh blending with other art forms like Banruku, puppet theatre.


One cool tradition is that Noh players rehearse only once as an ensemble, which embodies the saying, Sen no Rikyu, “one chance, one meeting.”


Ikebana Time

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Samurai Ikebana Bamboo

The history of structured flower arranging can be dated 500 years back. The roots are obscure but a Buddhist connection is suspected. The first practitioners were Buddhist monks. It was simple in the beginning, only a few tall stems and two shorter stems were used to create the illusion of life in flowers. One did not just place the stems in a special oblong vase, one contemplated in the mind before carefully systemizing a harmonious arrangement.


It wasn’t long before the samurai became avid Ikebana enthusiasts. They brought the lifestyle into the homes of upper class warriors. The sacred alcove, the Tokonoma, a small screen, an incense and candle.


A popular style, the Shoka consists of three main branches, known as “Heaven”, “Earth “, and human.


a Glimpse at the Real Madame Butterfly

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I’m cheating a bit in my title. I do realize but I love a good mystery. Take the romantic tragedy of Madame Butterfly. The story is a classic opera. A few movies. Has inspired several books, including my own, The Secret Life of Concubines. Even Madame Alexander made a doll in her likeness.

But I want to know. Who is Cho-Cho-san?

ON_Madama_Butterfly_main BEAUTY

The story is simple enough. Pinkerton, the naval officer arrives on a ship. Meets a beautiful girl, Cho-Cho-san. They fall in love but Pinkerton leaves her behind, and she waits and waits and waits and waits with unshakable faith, he’ll be back.

But it doesn’t go the way she wants. Enter the tragedy part.


Pinkerton returns. He’s surprised to see Cho-Cho-san is not alone, she has a child. A son who is her whole life. In the words of Malcolm McLaren, Pinkerton’s a bounder. He married a Yankee girl. Which can only spell total devastation for Butterfly. She goes ballistic when she learns he has not returned for her as promised, and…he’s brought his wife. They want her child. Butterfly is destroyed.

butterfly_2Hari Kari

It’s a wonderful story, and Puccini’s opera is one of my favorite. But was Madame Butterfly real? Depends on who you ask.

OPERA%20-%20Madama%20Butterfly Blood Tears

Thomas Glover, a Scottish merchant went to seek his fortune in the Meiji era. He worked the tea trade, and ended up on Nagasaki where he opened his own doors. He was half-adventurer, half-international investor. He took an active role in the Boshin War that toppled the shogunate and built the first western house on the island. He won and lost fortunes a few times over but Glover was first and foremost an industrialist, instrumental in aiding Japan’s rise out of feudal darkness.


He met and married Madame Tsuru. They had a son, Thomasburo. Not much is known about her, accept an old photograph where she is wearing the famous kimono adorned with butterflies. No historical evidence exists that she went by the name Ocho-san (Butterfly). Not a shred, other than the kimono. Historians have deduced that Madame Butterfly was a fabrication of the Nagasaki Tourist Board, even going so far as to rename Glover House, the “Madame Butterfly House.”

Who was Cho-Cho-san?

Who inspired one of the greatest Italian operas?

Red Fan Mad BF

A publicity stunt. An old photograph and a whiff of history. I wonder if Puccini knew that. Somehow, I don’t think he’d care. I don’t care either, I should but it’s a great story. Right?


Fukuyama Castle Matsumae’s Ghost

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Japanese winter. Pagoda tiles dripping with ice. Sleeping cherry blossoms encapsulated under snowy blankets busting to flower. There’s nothing like the contrast. On the island of Hokkaido, in Northern Japan, there sits a beautiful little castle on the Matsumae peninsula. It’s quiet, a sentinel in a stark landscape where the wind blows across the stormy Tsuguru much of the year. This castle is nothing special compared to the grand dames Edo and Himeji. It might even disappoint.
Matsumae castle

Don’t be fooled. This castle began in a place a castle had no right to be. It’s the only one of it’s kind in Northern Japan and once functioned as the single way station into Edo from the North. The jo began life as Fukuyama castle in 1606 built by Matsumae Yoshihiro. The Matsumae as a clan were tough and pragmatic. They had to be. An offshoot of the mighty Takeda, they were given exclusive rule over the northern island across the Tsuguru Straits.

In exchange, they controlled and subjugated the native Ainu and kept Honshu safe as a bumper. This was unique. Not only did the Matsumae get a rare, free hand, they were not required as most daimyo to make the galling tribute every other year to Edo castle. This allowed the clan to grow wealthy and develop autonomy when most of the other clans were being absorbed.


The life was hard. No rice grew in a landscape that was white most of the year, so the Matsumae adapted. They traded with the Ainu and amassed a vast koku of herring and furs. They were isolated and had little interference from the shogun-until the Russians came down and changed everything. What they found was a clan unlike anything else in Japan. Fukuyama stood less than 100 feet in it’s heyday, with three turrets, and took the name of the clan who couldn’t be frozen out, burned out or defeated easily; Matsumae.
Matsu Castle

I was so taken with this setting, a castle in perpetual winter and the black diamond clan that I set the action at Matsumae castle in my novel, The Secret Life of Concubines.


Daimyo-Japan’s Lord of the Manor

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As a fierce warlord and a ruler, the shogun ran feudal Japan with fear and respect. He was not a king, for Japan had an emperor who held separate court in Kyoto, the ancient religious capital. But the emperor had little power over day to day affairs, and lived a life cut off in genteel seclusion. After years of internal warfare, a leader emerged as the first shogun in 1600. The Tokugawa would go on to rule until the Meiji Restoration in 1868.


But how did the first shogun tame the warring clans into the longest internal peace that would lead to the decline of the samurai? He did it with a road.


A daimyo was a lord. He served under the shogun and swore fealty in much the same way a knight swore obedience to his king. The daimyo, a samurai warlord in his own right, would be given a vast land grant, or han, in exchange for that loyalty to the shogun. Under him would be his personal armies, members of his clan, high-ranking samurai-all at his disposal. This could be worrisome to a shogun who wanted to keep his minions in check. He instituted an ingenious, exhausting system, ensuring the lords would be too busy to concoct sedition. All daimyo were required to travel along the great Tokaido Road in a monstrous procession with everything they owned, from their wives to the last pot and pan. This compulsory trip to Edo Castle took place every other year. All lords were expected to spend the year in service to the shogun at his court-in essence they submitted to becoming hostages.

Toka samurai

It was a kind of forced-tribute. The cost to transport an entire household including armies was horrendous. Soon, the daimyo were hemorrhaging money. It took immense planning, many didn’t want to leave their han open to enemies. They resented the shogun’s intrusion and feared consolidation by Edo around the corner. The journey was slow. The main road leading to Edo, called the Tokaido was clogged on any given day with a stream of clan flags waving in the breeze. The servants who could not afford to ride in boxy palanquins walked on foot. No time to plan a war. No time to do anything but go back and forth to Edo, in a slow processional crawl.

It worked. Japan enjoyed peace and the daimyo had other things on their mind like courtesans and pleasure.

Samrai and courtesan

With no wars, and no fight, the samurai soon fell upon hard times. The daimyo fortune’s dried up with so many trips to Edo. But a few held out.


Tozama clans-considered outsiders rose up one last time to give the shogun a run for his money in what would become the Boshin war.