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Category Archive: Japanese Culture

Saigō Takamori: The Last True Samurai

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  • July 6, 2015

Saigō Takamori was one of Japan’s most influential samurai in history and is best remembered for being the Last True Samurai. He is considered the embodiment of bushido, the samurai code, and legends paint a magnificent picture of a life well lived in the annals of history. The movie “The Last Samurai” starring Ken Watanabi and Tom Cruise was based on his life.


Tokonami Masayoshi’s painting of Saigō Takamori in uniform.

Saigō Takamori (1828 – 1877), named Takamori in adulthood, and also known as Takanaga,  was born is the Satsuma Domain (modern day Kagoshima Prefecture). He started his career as a low-ranking samurai and later served the Daimyo of Satsuma, Shimazu Nariakira, in Edo during the  Kōbu gattai movement which promoted reconciliation between the Tokugawa shogunate and the Imperial court. He was banished twice to remote islands when his master suddenly died but was later pardoned by the new Satsuma Daimyo, Shimazu Hisamitsu, in 1864 and was tasked to handle the domain’s interests concerning the imperial court. Though Takamori believed the Emperor should have a stronger role, he did not anticipate that the future of Japan might not include a shogun who ruled the country for about 800 years.

Saigō Takamori led a punitive expedition against the Chosu domain whose army opened fire on the Emperor’s residence. He negotiated a peaceful settlement rather than launching an attack, a  decision that would allow him to gain the Choshu as his major ally in the coming Boshin War. After the Boshin War, Takamoro went into retirement but still played a pivotal role in advising for Japan’s political strategies as a counselor for the Satsuma Domain.


Battle of Shiroyama, 1880 painting.

The Japanese government continued to make drastic changes in policies when governing the country such as seizing land from the elite samurai and redistributing profits to lower ranking warriors. Samurai officials were promoted based on talent rather than rank, and the development of modern industry was encouraged by the government.


Saigō Takamori with his officers at the Satsuma Rebellion.

Saigō Takamori paved the way for Meiji reforms such as creating a conscript army and ending the daimyo rule. He went into retirement once again in Satsuma to lead a quiet life. However, he was viewed by the disgruntled samurai of Satsuma as a symbol of traditional virtues and wanted him to lead the opposition. Saigō Takamori held true to the ideals and beliefs of an ancient code at a time when Japan was entering an era of modernization.


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Seppuku: A Samurai’s Death with Honor

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  • June 29, 2015

Note: article contains graphic content.

Seppuku is the samurai’s honorable way of dying through his own hand. The samurai bushido honor code explicitly states that a samurai can perform seppuku voluntarily rather than fall into the hands of the enemy and likely be subjected to torture, or because he has brought shame to himself. It was also a form of capital punishment for a samurai who had committed a serious offense.

Seppukuseppuku2 (切腹), “self-disembowelment,” also known as “hara-kiri” or belly-cutting,  involves plunging a short sword into the left side of the abdomen, pulling the sword all the way to the right side and then turning it upwards, making it practically impossible for the wound to close and heal. It was considered exemplary to make a followup stab below the chest and press the sword downwards to cut across the initial cut, and finally to pierce one’s throat to culminate the seppuku ritual. This ritual act of taking one’s own life was thought to be a definitive demonstration of a samurai’s courage, strong resolve, and self-control, for seppuku is an extremely painful, slow way to die. It showed a true samurai’s sincerity of purpose.

Ukiyo-e woodblock print of warrior about to perform seppuku, by Kunikazu Utagawa.


There were instances when a samurai would perform voluntary seppuku to show his loyalty to his lord by following him to his death, as a form of protest against his superior or some government policy, or to atone for failing to do his duties. Obligatory seppuku was a method of capital punishment that spared the samurai the disgrace of being beheaded by a common executioner. Seppuku was finally abolished in 1873.

During the Edo Period (1600–1867), seppuku became a more detailed ritual. Planned seppuku was usually performed in front of an audience. A samurai was bathed, clothed in white robes, and served his favorite food as his final meal. When he was finished, he readied his knife, “tantō,” or short sword, “wakizashi,” the blade partially covered with cloth so he would not cut his hand and lose his grip. The samurai would also be dressed ceremonially with his sword placed in front of him and then he would prepare to write his death poem. A samurai would usually be assisted by his chosen second, “kaishakunin,” who would be standing close by. The chosen second performed kaishaku, a cut that decapitated the samurai.

General Akashi Gidayu preparing to commit seppuku after losing a battle for his master in 1582, by Yoshitoshi Tsukioka.


Jigaki is a form of ritual suicide by wives of samurai who have committed seppuku or have brought dishonor to their name. Jigaki involves slicing the arteries of the neck with one stroke for a quick and certain death, unlike the slow and painful death of seppuku. It was also performed by women to preserve one’s honor in instances of military defeat to avoid rape.  According to the bushido, it is an example of a truly determined, brave, and honorable way to die.

Seppuku knife. | Rama

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The Fall of Kamakura

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  • June 25, 2015

Kamakura (鎌倉) in Kanagawa Prefecture is a peaceful coastal town about an hour from Tokyo. Minamoto Yorimoto (1147–1199) was the founder and first shogun of the Kamakura Shogunate. Japan’s seat of  military government was based in Kamakura; rule continued for more than a century under the Minamoto shogun and then by the Hōjō regents.

On 3 July 1333, Nitta Yoshisada, a loyal supporter of the Southern Court of Emperor Go-Daigo, seized Kamakura from the Hōjō clan. Accounts of the tragic Hōjō defeat record that 900 Hōjō samurai and three Regents committed seppuku at Tōshō-ji, their family temple. Almost the entire clan vanished in one event. The city was in ruins and many of the temples were burned to the ground. Even ordinary citizens of Kamakura followed suit in a mass seppuku: an estimated 6,000 died by their own hand. Five hundred fifty-six skeletons from that period were recovered in 1953 during excavations near Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gū’s Ichi no Torii in Yuigahama. Most likely, they died violent deaths from the hands of Nitta’s men.


San no Torii at Kamakura. | KCP Flickr

The fall of Kamakura marked the beginning of a violent and chaotic era known as the Muromachi period. The decline of Kamakura was slow; it was known as the capital of the Kantō region which dominated the east of Japan and lasted almost as long as the shogunate regime.

The destruction of Kamakura did not stop with wars. In 1868, during anti-Buddhist violence (haibutsu kishaku) that followed after the official policy of separation of Shinto and Buddhism (shinbutsu bunri), more temples in the city saw major damage. Many of the temples and shrines had to give away some of their treasures, affecting their cultural heritage and value.

When the railroad reached  Kamakura in 1890, it allowed visitors access to see and appreciate the beauty and history of Kamakura. Many of the temples that were built centuries ago have been restored.


KCP Spring 2015 students at Kamakura. | KCP Flickr

Kamakura’s beautiful cultural assets are popular among visitors today. Kamakura’s history and heritage, once lost, have been rebuilt now and proudly stand as a testament to Japan’s proud history.


KCP students enjoy the beach at Kamakura. | KCP Flickr

Join KCP Spring 2015 students as they visit Kamakura. Visit our photo album at KCP Flickr.

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Ō-yoroi : The Samurai Armor

  • Posted by:
  • June 22, 2015

o-yoroi2We hear glorious samurai tales of honor, valor, and loyalty attributed to their strict adherence to the code of conduct, bushidō, or “the way of the warrior.” Samurai were the Japanese nobility of medieval and early modern Japan.

Japanese armor can be traced all the way back to the 4th century. It has developed greatly over the years since it was first used in the battlefield, evolving from the armor used in ancient China and Korea. During the 16th century when European trade was introduced to Japan, the samurai had its first look at European armor. Japanese armor was modified and incorporated with local armor and eventually produced better protection for the wearer.

Ō-yoroi. | Jason Lewis

The ō-yoroi (大鎧) or “great armor” is an early Japanese armor worn by the samurai class during Japan’s feudal era.  It combines plate and scales (kozane) laced together (lamellar). Ō-yoroi  can be traced to the Heian period in the 10th century. It became popular in the 12th century during the Genpei War, when armor was much in demand. It was designed primarily for cavalry archers, for it was box-shaped and did not allow much movement. In the 15th century, the ō-yoroi  was not a favorite choice of armor because the samurai used more infantry tactics in battle.

o-yoroi1The ō-yoroi is considered a rich man’s armor, as it was worn mostly by higher ranking samurai on horseback. Lower ranking samurai  wore something similar only it had fewer components, was more lightweight, and lacked the decorative aspects of higher ranking samurai. The ō-yoroi’s basic components are known as “hei-no-rokugu” or “rokugu”, meaning “six articles of arms.” The six major components are sune-ate (shin armor), menpo (facial armor), kabuto (helmet), dō (chest armor), kote (armored sleeves), and the hai-date (thigh armor). The material, color, and design of the lacing identified the clan the samurai belonged to. The ō-yoroi truly remains a proud part of Japan’s unique history.

Samurai ō-yoroi. | Ian Armstrong


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Mighty Shōguns of Japan

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  • June 18, 2015

Shōguns were powerful military governors of Japan during the shogunate regime from 1192 to 1867. Shōgun means general; their rank and position were hereditary.  Officially they were appointed by the emperor, but they were de facto rulers of the country.  A shogun’s office was the “shogunate” or bafuku (tent office/government), also the term for the shōgun’s officials.  The imperial court maintained minimal power compared to that of the shōgun and the bafuku.

Shōgun is the short term for Sei-i Taishōgun, a title given to the  commander-in-chief  who would lead an army against people resisting the rule of the Japanese imperial court. Sei-i Taishōgun  meant “Commander-in-Chief of the Expeditionary Force Against the Barbarians.” This was during the Heian Period, and the very first Sei-i Taishōgun was Ōtomo no Otomaro.

shogun1During the 11th century, the daimyo dominated the country’s internal politics with the protection of samurai forces. Two powerful clans, the Taira and the Minamoto, fought to control the declining imperial court; the Taira clan seized control from 1160 to 1185 only to be defeated by the Minamoto clan at the Battle of Dan-no-ura, a major sea battle that occurred on March 24, 1185. Minamoto no Yorimoto became the founder and the first shōgun of the Kamakura shogunate. He developed a political system with a succession of shōgun at the head coming to be known as shogunate. It lasted for almost 150 years.

Alleged portrait of Minamoto no Yorimoto.

shogun3Several different shōguns made a mark in Japan’s history until Tokugawa Yoshinobu relinquished his office in 1867 to the Meiji Emperor. Here are a couple of notable shoguns:

Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543–1616)—founder and first shōgun of the Tokugawa shogunate  that ruled from 1600 until the Meiji Restoration in 1868. He had great qualities that allowed him to rise to power and fight as a warrior general in 90 battles.

Portrait of Tokugawa Ieyasu.

Ashikaga Yoshiteru shogun2(1536–1565), also known as Yoshifuji, was the 13th shōgun of the Ashikaga shogunate and reigned from 1546 to 1565. He was skilled with the katana and is remembered as being more of a samurai and warlord.

Today, a shōgun’s equivalent is a prime minister. The term “shōgun” is still used informally to describe a retired Japanese prime minister; one who still has power and influence behind the scenes is called a “shadow shōgun.”

Portrait of Ashikaga Yoshiteru.




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Meiji the Great

  • Posted by:
  • June 11, 2015

Emperor MeijiMeiji_tenno1 (1852–1912), also known as Meiji the Great or Meiji-taitei, was the 122nd Emperor of Japan. During his reign, Japan underwent rapid changes, from being a feudal state to becoming a capitalist imperial world power made possible by Japan’s industrial revolution.

Prior to the Meiji Era was the Tokugawa period, when the Tokugawa Shogunate established itself as the ruler of the country. About 180 lords called daimyo ruled over the shogun’s domains (han).  In 1615, Tokugawa Hidetada issued a code of behavior for the nobility, including the emperor. It stated that the emperor was to devote his time to scholarship and the arts. The emperors under the Shogunate regime followed the code and studied Confucian classics, poetry, and calligraphy.

Portrait of Emperor Meiji by Chiossone.

At the time of Emperor Meiji’s birth in 1852, Japan was dominated by the Tokugawa Shogunate and the country was practically isolated from the rest of the world. Emperor Meiji was born on his maternal grandfather’s property in Gosho. His mother, Nakayama Yoshiko, was a concubine to Emperor Kōmei and the daughter of the acting major counselor to the reigning emperor. The young prince was named Sachinomiya, or Prince Sachi. Emperor Meiji was formally adopted by his father’s consort on the 16th of August, 1860, and was formally proclaimed prince of the blood and heir to the throne. On the 11th of November of that year, he was named the crown prince and given the name of Mutsuhito. Emperor Meiji ascended to the throne on the 3rd of February, 1867, after his father’s untimely death. He was only 14 years old.


An adolescent Emperor Meiji with foreign representatives (1868-1870).

During Emperor Meiji’s reign, domains were entirely abolished and Japan was organized into 72 prefectures. The new administration abolished most privileges of the samurai and other class-based distinctions. The Meiji Restoration is a proud part of Japanese history. It enabled Japan to become a preeminent power in the Pacific and a major world player, all within one generation.

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Japanese Chopstick Etiquette 101

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  • June 8, 2015

Eating sushi without chopsticks is an incomplete experience, somehow. Chopsticks have become familiar utensils in Asian restaurants,  and they have also come to serve other uses such as holding up long hair or as a decorative piece.


Developed in China about 5,000 years ago, chopsticks (箸) originated as simple twigs used to remove food from the fire.  The use of chopsticks is in perfect harmony with the teachings of Confucius: “The honorable and upright man keeps well away from both the slaughterhouse and the kitchen. And he allows no knives on his table.” This further boosted the popularity of chopsticks. Chopsticks spread to Japan, Korea, and Vietnam in 500 CE. The Japanese used chopsticks strictly for religious ceremonies.  In Japan today, chopsticks are used to eat most kinds of Japanese food. Spoons, forks, and knives are commonly reserved for Western dishes.

Assorted chopsticks. | Paul

Here are a few golden rules to remember when dining with chopsticks:

chopsticks3Do not eat food straight from the serving dishes.

When food is served, the proper etiquette is to take the food with the chopsticks and place it on your own plate before eating it.

Hold chopsticks correctly.

Using chopsticks isn’t as simple as it seems. It may take some practice to get the hang of it as there is a proper way to hold and use chopsticks. But once you’ve mastered using chopsticks, you can work on the next step—catching a fly with it as in the movie “Karate Kid.”

Eating sushi. | Roger Walch

Do not let your chopsticks hover over food while deciding on which food to take.

When you use your chopsticks while your hand hovers in indecision over the food on the table, it is considered greedy or, in Japanese, sashi bashi.

chopstick1Use the chopstick holder.

Most Japanese restaurants provide a chopstick holder or rest. If the chopsticks provided are disposable, there likely won’t be a chopstick holder. But you easily fashion one using the wrapper of the chopstick. Remember not to place your chopsticks upright on your food bowl, as that arrangement resembles the ceremony performed at funerals.

Chopsticks rest. | Wally Gobetz

Do not lick the ends of your chopsticks.

An adult mouth contains 500 to 1,000 kinds of bacteria with many diseases related to oral bacteria. With that said, keep the spreading of your saliva to a minimum.

Bon appétit or more appropriately, itadakimasu!

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William Adams: The English Samurai

  • Posted by:
  • June 4, 2015

Valor, honor, bravery, and the ritual act of suicide by seppuku have always captured my interest whenever I think of the samurai warriors of Japan.

Samurai were the warriors of Japan’s pre-industrial society. As the ruling military class, they became the highest rank in Japanese society during the Edo Period. Samurai were skilled in the use of weapons such as the yari (Japanese spear), yumi (longbow), and most notably the katana (long sword). They lived their lives according to bushido (“the way of the warrior”) which has high Confucian origins in ethical behavior. Many of them also practiced Zen Buddhism.


William Adams (1564–1620), known as Anjin Miura, “the pilot of Miura” in Japan, was the first-ever Western Samurai. Adams, born in Gillingham, Kent, England, was a ship navigator and the first Englishman to reach Japan. Initially he arrived in the island of Kyūshū in April 1600 after a grueling 19 months at sea onboard the ship Liefde. Out of a hundred crew members only 26 remained, most of them sick and dying. The ship was seized and the crew members were imprisoned at Osaka Castle on the orders of Tokugawa Ieyasu, then daimyo of Edo and future shogun. William Adams was questioned three times between May and June 1600 by Tokugawa Ieyasu; Adams’ knowledge of shipbuilding, ships, and nautical mathematics piqued Ieyasu’s interests.  Adams was later on asked to help Mukai Shogen, the commander in chief of Japan’s navy of Uraga, to build Japan’s first Western-style ship.

Woodblock print of William Adams.

Iadams2eyasu favored Adams, making him diplomatic and trade advisor, and he gave him many other great privileges. Ultimately, he became Ieyasu’s personal advisor in all things related to Western powers and civilization. He later became the Shogun’s official interpreter. William Adams was presented with two swords that represented the authority of a samurai, and he received the title of hatamoto (bannerman), a prestigious position that made Adams a direct retainer in the Shogun’s court.

Depiction of William Adams meeting Tokugawa Ieyasu.

adams1As a samurai, William Adams was given a fiefdom in Hemi (present-day Yokosuka City) with 80 to 90 servants, an estate valued at 250 koku (a measure of the yearly income of the land in rice, with one koku defined as the quantity of rice sufficient to feed one person for one year).

Willam Adams died at Hirado, north of Nagasaki, on the 16th of May 1620 at the age of 55. His legacy, though not related to bloody battles fought with samurai swords, is a testament to the development and advancement of trade in Japan with the Western world. A monument to William Adams is located at Nihonbashi Muromachi 1-10-8, Tokyo, the location of his former Tokyo home. A celebration in his honor is held each year on the 15th of June.

Grave marker of William Adams.

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The Tragedy of the Byakkotai Samurai

  • Posted by:
  • May 21, 2015

Today, Aizu is the westernmost region of Fukushima Prefecture in Japan.  The Aizu clan fought in the  Boshin War, a civil war in Japan from 1868 to 1869 between the Tokugawa Shogunate forces and those opposed to their rule. The war finally ended the military regime of the Tokugawa Shogunate and returned political power to the imperial court.

9213785149_35ab72acfa_zMatsudaira Katamori, the ninth-generation lord of Aizu, deployed massive numbers of troops to Kyoto where he served as Kyoto Shugoshoku, a military commissioner who held the bureaucratic office of the Tokugawa shogunate responsible for keeping the peace. They also acted as first official supervisor and patron of the Shinsengumi, a special police force organized by the Bakufu (military government) during the Bakumatsu period in 1864. The Aizu clan’s stand during the war alienated its ally, the Satsuma Domain, and gained the spite of the Chōshū Domain, which was anti-Tokugawa.

Tsuruga Castle. | L’oeil étranger

The Aizu people were known for their martial arts skills and their house code to serve the shogun with single-minded devotion. The Byakkotai (白虎隊), “White Tiger Force,” was a group of over 300 teenage samurai of the Aizu domain. They were part of the four-unit military of Aizu in their drive in modernizing their military setup; the other three units were Genbutai, Suzakutai, and Seiryūtai. All four were named for the protecting gods of compass directions.

Byakko-tai_statuesThe Byakkotai were sons of Aizu samurai—teenage boys 16 or 17 years old. They were further subdivided by rank in the domain’s samurai population with two squads from the shichū or upper rank, two from the yoriai or middle rank, and two from the ashigaru or lowest rank. Even after attempts to modernize their military defenses, the Aizu people were still no match for the pro-imperial forces in numbers and weaponry.

In late 1868, most of the Aizu troops fought as part of the Ōuetsu Reppan Dōmei, the Northern Alliance to the south and northwest of the domain. Only about 3,000 troops were left to defend the castle and the town, including the Byakkotai who were only meant to be a reserve unit since they were made up of very young, inexperienced boys.

Statue of Byakkotai warriors at Iimori Hill. | Amjaca

8811142205_d48c8dc0d0_zIn October, the Aizu were abandoned by the other northern domain as the pro-Imperial forces laid siege to Tsuruga Castle. At the height of the battle, 20 members of the 2nd shichū squad were cut off from the rest of their unit. The young boys retreated to Iimori Hill which overlooked the castle town. When the boys got a vantage point, they saw what they thought was the castle on fire. Believing their lord and families to be dead, they committed seppuku. One of the boys, Iinuma Sadakichi, survived the suicide attempt when he was found and saved by a samurai’s wife. Iinuma Sadakichi was only 14 years old and had lied about his age when he enlisted. It is through him and his accounts that the story of the young, brave, and honorable Byakkotai lives on.

Byakkotai gravesite overlooking the castle town. | Marco Capitanio

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Zenkō-ji Gokaicho: A Once Every 7 Years Event

  • Posted by:
  • May 18, 2015

Zenkō-ji, a Buddhist temple in Nagano, Japan, was initially built in the 7th century. Nagano City was built around it. It is significant in Japanese history for serving as one of the bases of operation of Uesugi Kenshin and Takeda Shingen, two of the most influential and powerful daimyos of the Sengoku period in the 16th century. Zenkō-ji  is one of the last few pilgrimage sites in Japan today.


Zenkō-ji was founded way before Buddhism split into several different sects in Japan. Zenkō-ji currently belongs to the Jōdoshū and Tendai schools of Buddhism.  Twenty-five priests from the Tendai school and fourteen from the Jōdoshū school co-manage Zenkō-ji together.

Zenkō-ji Temple. | Image provided by Michael G. Khmelnitsky.

Zenkō-ji  is also famous for the hibutsu named Ikkosanzon Amitabha. The Hibutsu (secret Buddha), a hidden Buddha statue made of wood, has not been shown to the public since 654. It is believed to be the very first Buddha statue ever brought to Japan. The image features the standing image of Amitabha in front of a halo, flanked by Avalokitesvara to the right and Mahasthamaprapta on the left.


The Hibutsu, or the Main Image of Zenkō-ji, was brought to the country from India through the Korean peninsula in the 6th century, during the reign of Emperor Kimmei. It was further moved several more times before it arrived in its present location in Nagano city. The commandments of the temple explicitly prohibit showing the statue to anyone including the chief priest of the temple, and absolute secrecy of the hibutsu is closely guarded. A replica of the statue (Maedachi Honzon) was created and is publicly shown only once in seven years during spring in a ceremony known as Gokaichō.

Roku-jizo in Zenkō-ji. | jpellgen

2324046736_5437a3931c_zThe Zenkoji Temple Maedachi Honzon  was created in the Kamakura period. The “Sacred Replica” of the Hibutsu is designated an Important Cultural Property of Japan. The Zenkoji Temple Maedachi Honzon Gokaichō  is an event that welcomes the Maedachi Honzon statue to the Main Hall of the temple. This happens once every seven years; many look forward to the chance to worship the “Sacred Replica” directly. This year marks another Zenkoji Temple Maedachi Honzon Gokaichō event beginning the 5th of May. The Gokaichō attracts millions of worshippers over its 57-day period when visitors are allowed the opportunity to touch a pillar (eko-bashira) erected in front of the Main Hall that is connected to the statue by a special cord.

Lining up to see the Buddha. | go_adb_go

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