Donjon; Daimyo; Japanese Castle
Matsumae Daimyos of Japan’s North Hinterlands
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.”
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
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?
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.
It’s a wonderful story, and Puccini’s opera is one of my favorite. But was Madame Butterfly real? Depends on who you ask.
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?
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
Cherry Blossom The Flower of a Warrior
My heart belongs to Kyoto…..
It’s that time again. Kyoto, lovely Kyoto is blooming with Hanami, the kimono are out in droves and the viewing parties are in full force. Oh to be in the Land of the Rising Sun now.
I always get a little weepy at this time of the year. The cherry blossom is as important to Japan as the kimono once was. It’s an enduring, iconic symbol, delicate, long admired for a transient reminder that the beauty of life is all too fleeting.
During the feudal age of Japan, the samurai chose the cherry blossom as the flower of contemplation. They wrote haikus and death poems devoted to flower that fell in a gossamer stream for a few short days every spring.
The Way of the Warrior is death. The samurai knew life was brief. Because the samurai code-the Bushido, The Way-preached readiness for death, when they looked at the five-sided blossoms thin as paper or held one in their hand they felt deep affinity to the beauty and the shortness of life.
“An old Edo proverb hold’s whoever find’s a three-sided cherry blossom, will always have love in their lives.”
The sakura, or cherry blossom is the flower of the Geisha. When the young Maiko come out to showcase their spring matsuri dance, they are always waving the cherry blossom.
Cherry blossoms are so revered that they are floated in tea or served with dinner and desert.
The best kind of snow to fall in Northern Japan’s Hokkaido is perfumed snow.
Washington DC’s Cherry blossoms came from a gift in 1912 from Japan.
Cherry blossoms come in a range of colors from pinks, to deep magentas to whites and peaches.
The cherry blossom is hardy enough to bloom in the snow covered lands of Northern Japan.
Cherry blossom viewing parties are called Hanami and everyone get’s out to enjoy the scenery.
Cherry blossoms are edible.
The view from above. Tayu or Oiran, Courtesan its all the same…not exactly.
Japanese Courtesans 101
So now you know that the geisha is not the same as the historical courtesan who ruled the Pleasure Quarters over three hundred years ago, and the geisha was a little opportunist who slid into the vacuum created by the decline of the courtesan. You’re interested in the Flower and Willow world of the Edo period. Great. Don your kimono and geta but don’t don’t call a Tayu an Oiran. Here’s why.
In Cecile Segawa Seigle’s definitive book, Yoshiwara, she makes the case that early prostitutes of Edo’s red light district Yoshiwara, were daughters of displaced daimyo and high-ranking samurai who were disgraced and fell on hard times, dismissed as ronin, masterless. In other words, these women already possessed some of the skills necessary to become a high-class courtesan; grace, extraordinary manners, refinement, classical training in the arts, calligraphy, and if they were lucky, pleasing beauty. Many brothels rose up in the shrewd hands of wily ronin who carved out alternative livings as brothel owners or scouts for potential new blood.
In the beginning there was the yujo, or sex worker with no distinction, other than the anecdotal evidence that the prostitute was easily recognizable by her sash or obi which was tied in the front.
With the later modern period, the brothels began to be licensed as a way to control what the government could not stop and had very little will to do so. It should be understood that Japan had no shame or condemnation of sexual relationships outside of marriage. A wealthy man was encouraged to take a mistress, and visit his courtesan, if he could afford it. Prostitutes, like kabuki and other fringe elements of society were looked down upon as low cast, yet that didn’t stop the men from visiting or the artists from singing their praises. They came in droves and soon a subtle caste system began to rise within the brothels and tea houses themselves.
The more money a man could pay, the higher ranking beauty he might obtain.
The ranking system was well underway by the 1700’s. It worked like this. A girl might grow up in a brothel, she might show great promise, work as a kamaru, child-helper to a high-ranking courtesan, carry her tobacco box and wait on her while the courtesan entertained her clients, hope to find a sponsorship, an Onee-chan or Big Sister as she climbed the ranks to teenage apprentice, or shinzo. But she might be pretty, she might be smart that doesn’t necessarily mean she had that special something, the X Factor, to become a Tayu. Sometimes your little sister could grow to become your greatest rival.
Cream Rises to the top
The Tayu was the top courtesan of her day, a precursor to the famous Oiran. She was a woman of singular grace, beauty and charm, a woman so sought after, if she played her cards right, she had her pick of any man, and could turn down anyone not to her liking. Of course, the unwritten rule, that new Tayu, very indebted Tayu, didn’t turn anyone down..in the beginning until she built some political clout in the brothel. This could take years. Time and tide were a courtesan’s worst enemy. It was a race to beat the clock before time took away her greatest assets, and only the most beautiful and sought after could hope to attain the prize; to be bought out of one’s contract by a wealthy benefactor.
The Tayu dressed beautifully, in layers of billowing, rare kimono of exquisite weave, though less ostentatious than the Oiran, with less kanzashi hair sticks and the trappings we associate with the over-the-top Japanese Courtesan.
The Tayu like the Oiran, walked in a grand procession down Nakanocho Boulevard in her impossibly high shoes. So high, she needed the assistance of men workers at the brothel, wakamono. When she wasn’t sleeping till ten, or entertaining clients, she walked barefoot-with a pale pink wash over her feet. The foot was erotic, but the bare feet was to show a courtesan’s toughness and fortitude.
“Those who walk barefoot in life hold their pain inwards and withstand much.” JM Ledwell
The Oiran-Something old is new
By 1750 things were shifting. The Yoshiwara was a bastion as well as a den of iniquity, often called the Nightless City, it thrived, despite several run ins with reactionary councilmen and near fatal fires. The Oiran, etered the stage. The sumptiary laws were written during the Kansei Era by a man named Matsudaira who wanted to stamp out what he saw as dangerous displays of silk by the lower order of society. People loved the courtesans, they came watch the processions, or Dochu and artists like Utagawa and Utemaru only served to spread their popularity. The most famous courtesans, like Tamigiku and Takao sold out in hours. Efforts to proscribe what was seen as ostentatious dressing, even certain colors, gold threads and certain silks were never successful for long. As a result of these waxes and wanes in the laws, the Oiran was poised to take the center stage.
Dochus became ever longer, shoes became taller, and courtesans hair-gigantic knotted wigs stuffed with kanzashi– became the Oiran’s stock and trade. The obi, tied in front for tradition to showcase her very availability, seemed to cascade like a mountain to the knees.
There are a few ladies today in Tokyo who are keeping the Tayu tradition alive. If you go to Kyoto, and know where to look, you may just see a living, breathing artifact from he past.
Today, the Oiran’s popularity show’s no sign of stopping. She’s frequently the topic of manga and anime. One of my favorite movies, Sakuran, stars the lovely Anna Tsuchiya who plays Kiyoha, a kamaru sold to a brothel as a child only to work her way up and find heartbreak in love, where she only wants to see if the cherry blossoms bloom the same outside her prison walls. Fantastic costumes. Fantastic soundtrack, the whole package.
If you are interested in Tayu and Oiran, you must see this movie. If you’ve seen Sakuran, let me know what you think.
This is the trailer. The opening song, Gamble fits the film in so many ways, Enjoy, peeps!
White Tigers Inside a Japanese Castle
Japanese Castles are not really castles. They are so much more.
Elegance in the Clouds
True, like their European counterparts, they were meant to impress and they were heavily fortified, set up high usually on a hill in a strategic location or a false facade of stone. They were just wood and stone which made them incredibly vulnerable to fire during attack. The tiniest spark and they went up in flames, in fact most of the buildings of the Edo period were built of wood. Don’t underestimate these tigers. From the outside, they look silent-simmering bastions, standing testament over the brutal history of samurai clans.
After years of warring, in 1603 the Tokagawa emerged as the first shogun to rule over the carpet that was Japan. He set up his capital in a little known swamp, and a great city rose up around Edo castle, in what we know today as Tokyo.
A small city, a Castle Town, soon sprung up like mushrooms around the fortification, which would house the shogunate’s retainers, his concubines, the samurai, or hatamoto who served him, and from there outward, merchants set up trade, vendor stalls were thrown up and Edo was born.
All of this was repeated by the lords or daimyo, who served the shogun. They had their households and retainers, concubines, family and samurai armies to house and feed.The castle town was a staple in feudal Japan. Though some were grander and larger in scale than others, they all had the basic components, some of which still stand today.
The Great Gate
One enters the castle bulwark first through an impressive central gate. The gate was to impress, to announce the might and great wealth to all who entered. A guard would be here and no one would get in, if he did his job right. Or he might have been bribed. Or he might be ninja.
The main tower or Donjon, is a five or six layer wooden straight structure with a beautiful tiled roof, shaped like the corners of a pie crust, often times adorned with koi fish and decorative tiles.
While the outside maybe imposing, soaring into the sky, with lovely understated gardens, the inside is deceiving. Barely no ornamentation graced the the walls, nothing but wood and narrow passages, this made for fast escape at night or when taken by surprise. It was much easier for startled feet to scurry along without thick rugs in the way.
In fact by European standards, it looks like a skeleton. No tufted furniture, no long lost ancestors hung on the wall, no priceless treasures to get in the way of an enemy assault. And while the accommodations were quite sumptuous, in comparison to how ordinary people lived, time and speed were necessary, for a lord and his samurai lived with only what was necessary to sustain life.
And More Wood
The rooms were sparse, simple and could be easily expended or slid for privacy.
Here the daimyo would kneel in front of his minions and hold court. No one would speak until spoken to, and no one dared raise their eyes lest they wanted immediate death.
The floors were the secret weapon. Outfitted with spikes hammered through the boards underneath, an ingenious method to warn intruders at night, they were a samurai’s best defense against the stealth of enemies or the dreaded ninja.
Check this out to hear the sound its amazing.
The existence of murder holes is something similar to European castles, slits in the wall where hot oil, arrows or water could be poured down on top of assaulting enemies.
The next important place is the daimyo’s armory. Samurai armor was complex and intricate and quite frightening to behold, as it was truly beautiful. This is the armor of the Matsumae, the ruling clan in my novel, The Secret Life of Concubines. They ruled over modern-day Hokkaido. Their kamon were four black diamonds encircled, in this way they show they were descended from the mighty Takeda clan.
The castle would have a shrine and temple where the daimyo family would pray and ask for victory before battle.
And that’s it, that’s the castle!