YOSHITOSHI TSUKIOKA: The Lives of Modern People, 1887-1888

Egawa Tarozaemon Playing the Koto
Egawa Tarozaemon Playing the Koto

Egawa Tarozaemon Hidetatsu (1801-1855) was magistrate of Izu-Nirayama Province, a progressive thinker and military expert, who tried to persuade the Tokugawa Shogunate to modernise Japan's defences. No one listened until 1853, when the arrival of Commodore Perry threw the bakufu into a panic. Fearing that Edo might be attacked by other western nations, the shogunate ordered Egawa to design defensive batteries for the city immediately. Egawa built a blast furnace in his province, and began turning out small arms and cannon. In fifteen months, six batteries were constructed around Edo Bay. Egawa was also the chief negotiator with Perry for the 1854 Treaty of Kanagawa.

Although I am told the title of this print refers to Egawa playing the koto, given the nature of the print, and the series, it seems to me more likely that he is the man listening to the koto player.

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Saigo Takamori
Saigo Takamori

Saigo Takemori (1827-1877) defeated the Tokugawa army and put the Meiji Emperor in power. Government was run by a small group of young samurai who came to believe that the privilege of their own class was the biggest obstacle to modernisation, and wanted to abolish it. Saigo resisted, arguing for a war on Korea to integrate the samurai into a new army. Outvoted, he went home to Kagoshima. In 1876, samurai stipends were ended, and he went to war against the government he had helped create. In the culminating battle of this Satsuma Rebellion, Saigo besieged Kumamoto castle, guarded by the despised new conscript army. It withstood everything he could throw at it. As the siege dragged on, his own forces deserted him, and, in 1877, he returned to Kagoshima to commit suicide. Saigo, not Tom Cruise, was the Last Samurai.

Yet Saigo is among Japan's most beloved heroes, said to embody the essence of Japaneseness. Since I have Japanese friends I love dearly, I will not speculate what that might be.

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Lady Kido Suikoin
Lady Kido Suikoin

Ikumatsu, a Kyoto geisha, became the mistress of Katsura Kogoro (1833-1877). He bought her contract, freed her, and trained her as a political spy.

Kido, with Saigo Takamori and Okubo Toshimichi, is considered one of the giants of the Meiji Restoration. An early subscriber to the plot to overthrow the Tokugawa, he avoided capture more than once based on information that Ikumatsu accumulated. When an attack on Kyoto failed, they fled together to his domain in Choshu.

With the Restoration, Katsura changed his name to Kido Takayoshi and married Ikumatsu, renamed Suikoin. He was responsible for moving the capital to Tokyo, and for persuading the heads of the large families to return their domains to the emperor. He opposed a plan to provide work for unemployed samurai by invading Korea and worked for the creation of Western-style constitution. Suikodin became renown for her political acumen in support of liberalising causes.

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Eto Shinpei
Eto Shinpei

Eto Shinpei (1834-1874) was the first Meiji Minister of Justice, extensively modernising the legal code.

The biggest problem facing the Meiji government was creating a modern army in a samurai society. The idea of a modern, trained army struck at the heart of samurai power, but a peacetime army could not fit the entire class into its officer corps. One proposal, in 1873, was to create the need for a large army into which all samurai could be absorbed by going to war with Korea. The issue was not Korea but maintaining the position of the samurai.

The Cabinet voted down the idea. Eto understood that this was the end for the samurai, and resigned his post to return home to Saga where he raised a rebellion against the government. However, the government defeated the rebels, and Eto died on the field in 1874.

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The Rishiki Umegatani Totaro
The Rishiki Umegatani Totaro

A rishiki is a sumo wrestler. Umegatani Totoro was the champion of his time.

Sumo is a fascinating sport, if one can put up with the looooong waits between short bouts. The first Japanese historical records (9th century AD) mention sumo, and it clearly had a long history behind it by then. However, it wasn't until the Tokugawa shogunate that it began to take the form it now has.

As with much in Japanese society, sumo has become so formalised that it resembles ballet more than anything a westerner would recognise as sport. The ritual gestures that open a match are, for me, at least as interesting to watch as the fight itself, which usually lasts less than a minute nowadays. The modern rishiki tends to weigh in at or near 200 kilograms (better than 440 pounds imperial): as a result, knee problems are a threat to a promising career, and a retiring rishiki has to go on a serious diet if he wants to live to see the age of fifty. It is clear from this print that this was not always the case, and one wonders what it would have been like to sit ringside in Yoshitoshi's time....

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Hanai Oume Killing Kamekichi
The Rishiki Umegatani Totaro

The geisha Hanai Oume was being stalked by Kamekichi. There is evidence that they had, at one time, been lovers. However, she either did not want a relationship, or wanted out of one that existed. Exasperated beyond endurance, Oume snapped one night in 1887 when Kamekichi accosted (she said he attacked) her, and killed him. At her trial, the defense argued that she was the victim, and the knife was the one Kamekichi had attacked her with, while the prosecution insisted she had intended the murder to rid herself of an expensive boytoy.

Yoshitoshi did this print for the Yamato Shimbun. It is clear from the details he includes -- Oume's slashed latern, her lost shoe and dropped umbrella, and the handkerchief that would not have allowed her room to conceal a knife -- that he believed her innocent. The court did not agree.

It is one of Yoshitoshi's signatures that the murderer in any given print is depicted in a moment of distraction, often by a passing bird, symbol of death or the shortness of life. Here, Oume seems to be listening for noise in the distance.

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Tokiko, the Mistress of Takeda Kounsai, in the Snow
Tokiko,

Tokiko was the mistress of Takeda Iganokami Minamotono Masanari, also called Kounsai, a military thinker and writer in service to Lord Rekkou, who supported the late-Tokugawa move to restore the Emperor and drive foreign influences from Japan. On Rekkou's death, Takeda fell out with the clan, and, in 1864, accompanied by Tokiko, lead his forces toward Kyoto. On Reiheishi-Kaido road, they met the Tokugawa army. On November 16th, the two forces fought at Shimonita, and the rebels were victorious. However, they were eventually defeated at Tsuruga, and hacked down.
I knew I would bear no fruit,
but it is sad,
falling without giving off even a fragrance.
          Tokiko's death poem

Special thanks to Hiraguri Yuriko, without whose research I would never have known Tokiko's story, and to Fujimura Tadanori, of Yamagouchi Prefecture, who took the time to answer her questions on my behalf.

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