Category Archive: Japanese Culture
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.
Matsudaira 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.
The 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
In 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
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
The 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
Hundreds of years ago, there was an epic sea battle in Dan-no-ura that took many lives. The battle took place in the Straits of Shimonoseki, off the southern tip of Honshū, between the Heike (Taira clan) and the Genji (Minamoto clan). After half a day of battle, the Genji defeated the Heike, and many perished in the encounter including women, children, and the infant emperor, Antoku Tenno. The area where the great battle occurred is known to be haunted. Strange things can be seen and heard along the shores, and on dark nights ghostly fires, which people call “demon fires” or oni-bi, hover along the waves and the beach. The area is known to harbor restless spirits even today.
There is a Japanese legend of a blind yet gifted biwa player from Akamagaseki named Hoichi. He was known for his skills in reciting the Tale of the Heike and the fall of Emperor Antoku while playing the biwa. Hoichi was a very poor man but his good friend, the priest of Amidaji, would often ask him to play and recite at the temple. After some time, his friend proposed that Hoichi make the temple his home and play for the priests occasionally.
Reenacting Hoichi’s tale. | 松岡明芳
One evening, Hoichi was approached by a gruff-sounding samurai who requested that he play for his lord. Hoichi could very well not refuse the scary retainer. He led Hoichi to what he thought was the home of a powerful nobleman who asked that he recite the Tale of the Heike for his court. Hoichi’s performance was met with resounding praise. He was asked to return again the next few evenings to continue his lengthy performance which required days to recount the entire tale. Before Hoichi left the court, he was requested to refrain from speaking about what he had been asked to do.
The next evening, he was again picked up by the samurai and led to his audience. This time however, Hoichi’s absence did not go unnoticed unlike the previous evening. His friend the priest of the Amidaji temple asked servants to keep an eye on Hoichi and determine where he was going. When the servants saw Hoichi leaving the temple, they immediately followed him to the Amidaji cemetery, There they saw Hoichi reciting and playing his biwa in the memorial tomb of Emperor Antoku Tenno. The servants brought Hoichi back to the temple and told the priest what they had witnessed. Realizing that Hoichi had been bewitched by ghosts, the priest painted Hoichi’s entire body with the kanji characters of the Heart Sutra for protection. The priest then told Hoichi to remain completely silent and still the next time the samurai came to summon him for a performance.
Hōichi-dō (Miminashi-Hōichi’s shrine) in Akama-jingū, Yamaguchi.
On the third evening, the samurai came to pick up Hoichi. The samurai called out for him but was met with complete silence. The samurai could only see the biwa and a pair of ears. The kanji characters written all over Hoichi’s body rendered him invisible to the samurai. Well, almost invisible. The only areas where the Heart Sutra was not written on were Hoichi’s ears. The samurai then lopped off Hoichi’s ears as proof for his master that the ears were what remained of Hoichi; hence he could no longer perform for them.
The priest later discovered Hoichi bleeding from his wounds. He was treated and soon recovered, never to be bothered by the ghosts again. His legend lives in the tale known as “Hoichi the Earless.”
Popular celebrities like Game of Thrones’ Kit Harington, Leonardo di Caprio, and Jared Leto have sported long hair tied in a knot, also known as man buns. Men have been wearing their hair long for centuries; it seems man buns are here to stay.
In Japan, the chonmage (丁髷) is a type of Japanese men’s haircut that was popular during the Edo Period (1603 to 1868). It is commonly considered the samurai hairstyle and is used by sumo wrestlers in more recent times. In the chonmage, a samurai warrior’s hair was cut in such a way that he could keep his helmet on his head when in battle. Later, it was considered a status symbol among Japanese society. Only men of high rank and status such as nobles and samurai were allowed to wear the chonmage.
Japanese samurai with chonmage hairstyle.
The traditional chonmage is made by shaving the middle of the head all the way until halfway to the back of the crown. The remaining hair is oiled and tied into a ponytail, the end of which is placed at the back of the head in a topknot. It was considered a disgrace to have the topknot cut off.
Traditional Japanese hairstyles depict the colorful history of Japan. They can also tell us a lot about a person like their marital status and their place in society.
Traditional Japanese hairstyles for women include:
Shimada (島田) – during the Edo period, this was a hairstyle commonly worn by girls in their late teens. Hair is gathered together at the crown of the head, and a small part of of the bun is sectioned to point outwards.
Shimada style. | EverJean
Hime cut (姫カット) or Hime katto – this type of hairstyle was documented in Heian Period works of art. It was also known as the princess cut and was a popular style for women at the imperial court. The hairstyle consists of straight hair with sidelocks cut until cheek-length with front fringes. The rest of the hair is worn straight and longer than the rest.
Wig with hime cut. | Kaede
Yoko-Hyogo – this hairstyle came into fashion towards the end of the Edo period. It was usually worn by high-ranking women and courtesans. The hair was usually gathered on top of the head and held together with combs and ornaments. The hair on each side would be heavily waxed and made into mounds. The hair near the center of the forehead was usually shaved to make the forehead appear higher. Japanese wood block prints and paintings of the era commonly depicted women in this hairstyle.
Doll with yoko-hyogo style. | screengrab from whoko.blog7.fc2.com
Samurai were a fascinating part of Japan’s history. Their strict adherence to their code of honor (bushidō) is awe-inspiring. Their cunning skills in swordsmanship and warfare tactics truly made them exceptional military nobility of medieval and early-modern Japan.
Here are two notable samurai:
Oda Nobunaga (織田 信長) 1534 – 1582, was a powerful samurai daimyo warlord of the late 16th century. He is remembered for initiating the unification of Japan at the end of the Warring States period as well as being one of the most brutal figures in history. Oda Nobunaga’s life consisted of continuous military victories that eventually led to conquering a third of Japan before his death. He is also considered one of Japan’s greatest rulers only to be betrayed by one of his own people, Akechi Mitsuhide, in a coup d’état.
Portrait of Oda Nobunaga painted by Giovanni Nicolao.
As the story goes, Mitsuhide may have heard a rumor that Nobunaga would transfer Mitsuhide’s fief to his trusted and favored page, Mori Ranmaru, with whom he was believed to have been in a homosexual relationship with (a ritualized form of patronage at the time known as shudō). Unprepared for the surprise attack, Nobunaga and the few men he had at his watch were quickly overcome. Nobunaga took his own life by seppuku (stomach-cutting) in one of the inner rooms at Honnō-ji temple with his faithful page by his master’s side. Once Nobunaga had carried out his final deed, Ranmaru also killed himself in the same way.
Takeda Shingen (武田 信玄) 1521 – 1573, is also known as “The Tiger of Kai” for his prowess in the battlefield. As a young man, Shingen’s first act was to gain control of his surrounding area. With his cunning tactics, the major daimyos of the Shimano region came unprepared and were easily defeated by Shingen. This victory set the stage for expanding his domain. Shinen’s skills in the battlefield was believed to be the only match for Oda Nobunaga’s desire to rule over all of Japan. Shingen temporarily stopped the advance of Nobunaga’s men in the Battle of Mikatagahara. The cause of his death remains uncertain up until today. Some accounts say he died of pneumonia, a sniper, or an old war wound.
Portrait in silk of Takeda Shingen.
The Battle of Kōan (弘安の役) is also known as the Second Battle of Hakata Bay. The first was a failed attempt seven years earlier in the Battle of Bun’ei, when by divine providence the Japanese were aided by a storm they refer to as kamikaze (divine wind), a name that was later used in World War II for aerial suicide attacks.
During the next seven years, while Kublai Khan mulled over his unexpected defeat in Japan, the samurai still waited for the bafuku in Kamakura to reward them for fighting against the Mongol invaders. As was the custom for honoring samurai who had fought valiantly and victoriously in domestic battles, they expected to be granted a share of the land or any goods seized from the enemies. Unfortunately, in the case of the Battle of Bun’ei, there were no spoils of war to portion out since the invaders were not from Japan and had left no booty behind. This left the bafuku with nothing to pay the thousands of samurai who had fought off the Mongols.
Depiction of Takezaki Suenaga.
Takezaki Suenaga took the initiative to travel for two months to the Kamakura shogun’s court to plead his case in person. He was rewarded with a prized horse and stewardship of Kyushu island, but only 120 samurai out of the 10,000 who had fought received rewards from the bafuku. This brought the Kamakura government much resentment from most of the samurai class.
Meanwhile, Kublai Khan sent a delegation of six men to Japan demanding that the emperor travel to the capital of the Kublai Khan’s empire, Dadu (modern day Beijing), and bow to him in submission. Japan responded by beheading the six envoys and prepared for a second attack from the Mongols by taking a census of all available weaponry and warriors. All of Kyushu’s landowning class was also tasked to build a defensive wall around Hakata Bay measuring five to fifteen feet high and 25 miles long.
In the spring of 1281, the Japanese got wind that the second Mongolian invasion force was on their way to Japan. Kublai Khan knew that his initial defeat seven years prior was just a case of bad luck due to the weather rather than his prowess in fighting the samurai.
Image of Samurai ships, detail from theMōko Shūrai Ekotoba hand scrolls.
This time around, the Japanese were more prepared for the battle. There were 40,000 samurai and other fighting men ready at arms for the coming Yuan army. The Mongols sent two separate forces: 40,000 Chinese, Korean, and Mongol troops in 900 ships set out for Masan, and an even larger army of 100,000 in 3,500 ships from southern China. The smaller fleet arrived in Hakata Bay on 23rd June, 1281. However, the ships from China still had not arrived. The Korean fleet were unsuccessful in breaching the Japanese defensive wall, bringing the battle to a stalemate. The samurai would row out in small boats some nights and set fire to the opposing ships. These raids greatly demoralized the Chinese and Korean sailors who were only recently just conquered and had no great loyalty to Kublai Khan.
On the 12th of August, the Mongols’ main fleet arrived in the west of Hakata Bay. The Mongol army was more than three times the size of the samurai army, and the Japanese were in serious danger of defeat. On August 15, just as it seemed that the Japanese army would be slaughtered and defeated by the Mongols, another typhoon blasted its way into Kyushu. Out of the 4,400 ships in Khan’s fleet, only a few hundred survived the torrential waves and merciless winds. Almost all of the invaders drowned. Those who made it to shore were overrun by the samurai.
This is the legend of the kamikaze, or divine winds that brought the mighty Mongol army to its knees. Kublai Khan never again tried to conquer Japan.
Japanese castles served a particular need in the 15th century, during the Warring States era in Japan, a time of chaos when many small independent states in the country fought each other. Japanese castles were built in strategic areas such as on top of a mountain for defense purposes. When a central authority was established by Oda Nobunaga in the latter part of the 16th century with Toyotomi Hideyoshi completing the reunification of Japan, larger castles were built across the country and became the region’s administrative and military headquarters.
Kakegawa Castle (掛川城) in Kakegawa Shizuoka Prefecture (then known as Tōtōmi Province) was the seat of power of the various daimyos who ruled over the Kakegawa Domain. The original castle was built by Asahina Yosihuro, a retainer of the warlord Imagawa Yoshitada (father of the famed Imagawa Ujichika and the 9th head of the Imagawa clan) during the Bunmei era (1469-1487).
Kakegawa Castle. | Izu navi
The castle stood for many succeeding generations of the Asahina clan. When the Imagawa clan was defeated at the Battle of Okehazama, the territories under Imagawa Yoshitada were divided among the victors, Tokugawa Ieyasu and Takeda Shingen. Kakegawa Castle was surrendered to the Tokugawa forces by Asahina Yasutomo in 1568 and remained under Tokugawa’s rule until the fall of the Takeda clan.
Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s rise to power after the Battle of Odawara in 1590 forced Tokugawa Ieyasu to trade his domains in the Tōkai region for the Kantō region. Kakegawa went to Toyotomi’s retainer Yamauchi Kazutoyo and became the center of 51,000 koku, later increased to a 59,000 koku domain. Yamauchi Kazutoyo rebuilt Kakegawa Castle completely using the latest contemporary architecture at the time, and the stone walls, moats, and layout have since remained the same.
Kakegawa Castle inner moat. | Monado
During the Tokugawa shogunate, the Tokugawa recovered most of the territories they lost, including Kakegawa Castle. The castle was assigned to many different daimyōs throughout the years, beginning with Hisamatsu Sadakatsu and ending with seven generations of the Ota clan.
The end of the feudal age saw many castles demolished as unwelcome reminders of the past. Many structures of Kakegawa castle were destroyed in the Ansei Tōkai Earthquake in 1854 and even more were destroyed during World War II. There are very few original castles left today that give us a glimpse of life in the old days and show us the remarkable culture and heritage of Japan. Kakegawa Castle remains a reminder of the tumultuous past and the glory days of daimyōs who once ruled over the lands.
Traditional Japanese cuisine is a combination of staple foods available in the region. Usually it consists of white rice with one or more side dishes and main dishes, sometimes served with miso soup and pickles. Japanese food has had strong influences from Korea and China for thousands of years. It was only in the last few hundred years that foreign trade and religion made any impact on traditional Japanese fare and influenced it to what we now know it to be.
Some traditional Japanese foods include:
Sukiyaki – a type of soup or stew prepared in a Japanese hot pot (nabemono) style. It consists of thin slices of beef, vegetables, tofu, scallions, Chinese cabbage, shiitake mushrooms, and jelly noodles (konnyaku). The sauce mixture where the various ingredients are cooked in is made of soy sauce, sugar, and mirin. Usually, Sukiyaki is served during winter.
Sukiyaki. | Kapichu
Shabu-shabu – has a special broth made by boiling at least three inches of sea kelp (kombu) for around 30 minutes. The broth may also have some saki and salt mixed in it. Shabu-shabu comes with two types of sauce. One is usually made with sesame paste, soy sauce, fish sauce, vinegar, sugar, water, and fine garlic pieces, while the other sauce is a combination of lime juice, soy sauce, and chopped long green onions.
Shabu-shabu. | jimg944
Tempura – a delicious Japanese dish that includes a light, crispy, deep-fried batter. It usually is made with vegetables or seafood; shrimp is most popular. Tempura was first introduced to Japan as early as the middle of the 16th century by the Portuguese. Reportedly, Tokugawa Ieyasu, first shogun of the Tokugawa shogunate of Japan, loved tempura.
Tempura shrimp. | Jeremy Keith
Yakitori – a popular Japanese street food. It is usually made of bite-sized pieces of chicken and other non-poultry ingredients on bamboo skewers, and barbecued over a hot charcoal grill. The term “yakitori” refers to skewered food in general. Small restaurants or stands all around Japan called yakitori-ya serve these delectable dishes, often accompanied by a nice cold bottle of beer.
Yakitori. | Searobin
Unagi is a Japanese word for freshwater eel. It is used as an ingredient in delicious and nutritious Japanese food such as unadon (sliced eel served on top of rice) in donburi (Japanese rice topping) meals. The fancier version of unagi, jūbako, is served in a lacquered box. Another popular unagi dish usually served in the Nagoya area is called hatsumabushi (shredded unagi mixed with rice). Unagi is such a versatile ingredient that it is also used to make unagi pie, a type of sweet biscuit made with powdered unagi.
Unadon. | Lorenia
Unagi (うなぎ) is a species of anguillid eel also found in other countries such as Taiwan, Korea, China, Philippines, and Vietnam. They live parts of their life in freshwater but spawn in the sea, usually in the North Equatorial Current in the western North Pacific, west of the Mariana Islands. The larvae of the Japanese eel are then carried westward by the North Equatorial Current and travel all the way north to the Kuroshio Current to East Asia where they live in estuaries, lakes, and rivers. Unagi is an important part of the Japanese food culture and other Asian countries’ cuisines and are raised in aquaculture ponds.
Unagi. | opencage
Regular consumption of unagi contributes to several health benefits: it lowers cholesterol levels and blood pressure, prevents vascular diseases, aids in normal brain development and nervous system functions, reduces the risk of developing arthritis, and promotes good eyesight. Among the notable nutrients found in unagi are vitamins A, B1, D, and E. It also contains healthful unsaturated fatty acids like DHA, EPA, and Omega-3.
Unagi is often prepared in Japan in the kabayaki style, with the fish split in half from the back or belly (butterflied), gutted, deboned, and cut into fillets. Slices of unagi are then skewered and dipped in a sweet soy sauce before being broiled on a grill. A popular custom from the Edo period is to eat kabayaki during the summer for added stamina. Oishi!
Kabayaki style. | Alpha
The Mongol invasions of Japan in 1274 and 1281 were significant events in Japanese history and are prime examples of the concept of divine intervention. These events are also believed to be the earliest reference for the word kamikaze or “divine winds” that ended any further attempts by the Mongols to invade Japan.
The Mongol Empire used to rule over lands that stretched from China to the Pacific coast of Siberia in the east. Kublai Khan, the grandson of Genghis Khan, ruled over much of China when he defeated the Song Dynasty and declared himself the first emperor of China’s Yuan Dynasty in 1271. He also ruled over Mongolia and Korea while his uncles and cousins controlled lands that stretched from Hungary in the west all the way to Siberia.
Kublai Khan painting by Anige.
The Battle of Bun’ei (文永の役) , the First Battle of Hakata Bay
As early as 1266, Kublai Khan had been sending emissaries to Japan demanding tributes. He continued to send messengers for the next six years with his demands being ignored. The Japanese shogun would not even allow the emissaries’ ships to land on Honshu, the main island. The Mongols commissioned construction of about 600 vessels from China and Korea and gathered an army of 40,000 men, many of whom were Chinese and Koreans. On the other hand, Japan could only come up with 10,000 samurai warriors.
Depiction of defensive wall at Hakata, 1293.
In the autumn of 1274, the Yuan army departed from the port of Masan in southern Korea. An estimated 900 vessels set out for the Sea of Japan. The first invaders seized the islands of Tsushima and Iki and slaughtered about 300 island residents. From there they moved on to the east. On the 18th of November, the Mongol army reached Hakata Bay (near present day Fukuoka). According to the scroll commissioned by Takezaki Suenaga who had fought in both the battles of Mongol invasions, the samurai warriors initially set out to battle according to their code of bushido where a lone samurai warrior would step out, announce his name and lineage, and prepare for one-on-one combat with an opponent. Unfortunately, the Mongols were unfamiliar with the samurai code and attacked the lone samurai all together. In addition, strategic weaponry and coordinated attacks of the Mongols were all new and fatal for the Japanese.
The Mongol Invasion, tapestry by Kawasaki Jimbei II.
On the evening of the battle, strong rain and winds, said to be kamikaze (divinely conjured wind), began to hit the coast and threatened the Mongol ships. Chinese and Korean sailors on board Kublai Khan’s ships advised the Mongol generals to set anchor farther out to sea lest the winds drive the vessels to shore in Hakata Bay. When the storm subsided, a third of the Mongols ships were destroyed by the storm and around 13,000 of Kublai Khan’s army perished while the rest of the Mongol army retreated back to Korea.