Japan – The Origins and Evolution of the Samurai

Welcome back to the ABC world history series! For my contribution I have J for Japan, and obviously I was going to write something about warfare. The first thing to come to mind when considering Japanese warfare history would undoubtedly be the samurai. Of course we all know about their modern reputation as honourable masters of the katana, but this was not always their way, and misrepresents the majority of the role they played in Japanese society throughout time. As with most things in history I think it’s interesting to look back where things began, so today I’ll be taking a look at the origins of the samurai, and how they evolved through the centuries.

China has influenced Japan more than any other nation, and the relationship between the two has had a massive impact on history. In the mid-seventh century Japan widely adopted many Chinese-style institutions. The Taihō Codes of 702, a set of statutes written in Chinese and inspired by Chinese models, mandated a stable, centralized state in control of a reformed military system emphasizing peasant infantry. Things began to change break down eventually however, and thanks to a political vacuum created by an ineffective central government between 900 – 1100, local leaders were forced to arm themselves and take matters into their own hands against many rebellions. These warriors of the countryside soon banded together, linked by ties of dependence and based in private estates on land they had claimed themselves. Eventually they were wholly relied upon for control of rural Japan, and finally in 1185 Yoritomo seized leadership of this new class and established a feudal system which allotted land to them in exchange for their martial service. Hence those previously known as bushi (warrior) started to take on the name of samurai, literally meaning ‘servant’, although until the seventeenth century it may have been an insult to refer to these them as such.

Overall this story is the commonly accepted history of how the samurai came to prominence in Japan, however it does gloss over a lot of the details. So to find out more we need to go back to the time of the early Chinese-styled Japanese military. The Japanese imperial government was vigorous during the early Heian period. Emperor Kanmu’s avoidance of drastic reform decreased the intensity of political struggles, and he became recognized as one of Japan’s most forceful emperors. Imperial control was spreading across the majority of Japan by this time, and thrust north with an army based mainly on the Chinese heavy infantry model of the Tang dynasty. Eventually however, they came upon people known as the Emishi (shrimp barbarians), or Mojin (Hairy people) of north-eastern Honshu. This distinct group had developed horse archery tactics similar to those of the Huns and Mongols. Although archery had been a major martial skill in Japan since prehistory, and there had been some use of cavalry by those that could afford it, the two had never been combined in an effective fighting force by the Japanese before. The more static infantry of the Japanese struggled to deal with these highly mobile and effective fighters, so eventually their tactics were adopted and the Emishi were gradually assimilated after 801 when they had finally been subjugated. This resilient group had a profound impact on the formation of the first Samurai, and it has been said that the very core of the Japanese spirit is the ‘ghost of the Emishi’.

Continue reading “Japan – The Origins and Evolution of the Samurai”

The British Museum – through the Lens of a Camera pt. 2

This is a continuation of my blog update from yesterday. The images you will see here are taken my by myself-probably very clumsy, in my walk around the British Museum on the 31st August 2015.

Through Asia: Oriental Cultures in the British Museum

So here I have gone around the rooms regarding China, Korea, Japan, and the India. I have taken pictures of several deities, heavenly guardians and other protective spirits, following the pattern that I had accidentally promoted through my Assyrian images. The are a couple of things that are included such as the crown that do not quite fit in with the theme – but what cultural historian with an art background in depictions of power would I be if i neglected that gilded silver beauty… When fitting I have taken pictures of things that perhaps we have catered for in the blog this year-like the japanese picture below. So have a look and enjoy it.

Louhan: in glazed stoneware from the Hebei Province, China (907-1125 AD)
Louhan: in glazed stoneware from the Hebei Province, China (907-1125 AD).


(Another glazed stoneware Chinese figure)
(Another glazed stoneware Chinese figure).


Ming dinasty stoneware figure from judgement group - 16th Century
Ming dynasty stoneware figure from judgement group – 16th Century.


Ming dinasty stoneware figure from judgement group - 16th Century
Ming dynasty stoneware figure from judgement group – 16th Century.


"Painted pottery tomb guardian", North China, tang dynasty 7th-8th Century AD
“Painted pottery tomb guardian”, North China, tang dynasty 7th-8th Century AD.


Glazed pottery group from North China during the Tang dynasty, 8th Century AD
Glazed pottery group from North China during the Tang dynasty, 8th Century AD.


"Sandstone figure of Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara" Northern Qi dynasty, AD 550-577
“Sandstone figure of Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara” Northern Qi dynasty, AD 550-577.


Brahma, South India, Tamil Nadu AD 1001-1050
Brahma, South India, Tamil Nadu AD 1001-1050.


Gilt silver crown from the late Ming early Qing period (17th Century)
Gilt silver crown from the late Ming early Qing period (17th Century).


Shiva dakshinamurti, South India, Tamil Nadu, Chola dynasty, late 10th Century
Shiva dakshinamurti, South India, Tamil Nadu, Chola dynasty, late 10th Century.


"Ambika, the Jain Mother Goddess" Dhar, Paramara dynasty (CE 1084)
“Ambika, the Jain Mother Goddess” Dhar, Paramara dynasty (CE 1084).


Vahara, the boar god - Vishnu's incarnation 12th Century
Vahara, the boar god – Vishnu’s incarnation
12th Century.


"Shiva and Parvati", Orissa, 12-13th Century
“Shiva and Parvati”, Orissa, 12-13th Century.


"Amitabha Buddha" - the buddha of infinite light- statue in marble, found in the Hebei Province (China), from the Sui dynasty from AD 581-618.
“Amitabha Buddha” – the buddha of infinite light- statue in marble, found in the Hebei Province (China), from the Sui dynasty from AD 581-618.


"cloisonne enamel figure of a Tibetan Lama, seated on a lotus base" Qing dynasty, early 19th century
“cloisonne enamel figure of a Tibetan Lama, seated on a lotus base” Qing dynasty, early 19th century.


Statue of Kudara Kannon, from Japan. Copy from the original statue by the temple of Nara made for the British Museum in 1930. (the original statue is from the c.600 AD).
Statue of Kudara Kannon, from Japan. Copy from the original statue by the temple of Nara made for the British Museum in 1930. (The original statue is from the c.600 AD).


“Entertainers in Niwaka Festiva”l by Kitagawa Utamaro (c. 1753 – 31 October 1806). Colour print from 1793.

Depiction of the guardians of the Buddhist realm. Joseon period, Korea, 1796-1820.
Depiction of the guardians of the Buddhist realm. Joseon period, Korea, 1796-1820.


Polynesia & the Barkcloth

As we were walking by, my father made me aware that they had brought some items from Polynesia, including the Barkcloth for a little while to the BM…And obviously we had to go have a look! Here are some pics of the items I found most interesting. The masks are particularly awesome!


pa'u (woman's skirt) an example of barkcloth decorated with ula'ula, or red plant dyes
pa’u (woman’s skirt) an example of barkcloth from Hawaii decorated with ula’ula, or red plant dyes.


Kovave mask - worn by male initiates from the Elema people from the Gulf region of Papua New Guinea, and used to call out the spirits of the bush. Early 1880s - in barkcloth too!
Kovave mask – worn by male initiates from the Elema people from the Gulf region of Papua New Guinea, and used to call out the spirits of the bush. Early 1880s – in barkcloth too!


Kavat from the Baining people (New Britain, Papua New Guinea). Mask to attract the spirits of the forest that this people depended on for harvesting, hunting and war. 1970s.
Kavat from the Baining people (New Britain, Papua New Guinea). Mask to attract the spirits of the forest that this people depended on for harvesting, hunting and war. 1970s.


Barkcloth headdresses used by the warriors of Papua New Guinea
Barkcloth headdresses used by the warriors of Papua New Guinea.


Kua'ula - use for men's loincloth in the 1700s (Hawaii).
Kua’ula – use for men’s loincloth in the 1700s (Hawaii).

Japanese Geisha

The Japanese Geisha are women who are traditional entertainers, trained in the arts (playing music and dance) and knowledge of how to converse and play games with their male customers. Today in contemporary times the Japanese Geisha still practice and entertain. The Japanese Geisha are known in many countries due to popular culture and for some is considered a trait of Japan.

In the past girls had the opportunity to train as a Geisha at a very young age and in some cases it was not unheard of for girls to train as young as the age of three. Before girls reached maturity there was a way girls could train as an apprentice Geisha (Maiko). The Shikomi (servant) and Minarai (a shadowing Geisha) training is also another important part of the Geisha training process and occurs before the Geisha training. Many years ago this training took longer than what it does nowadays.

One of the most popular perceptions of the Japanese Geisha is that they practised prostitution. Originally this practise can be traced when looking at the emergence of the Japanese Geisha women. The origins of the Japanese Geisha can be traced back to as early as the 600s. These female entertainers were called the Saburoko, the Saburoko translated into English as (serving girls). Some of the Saburoko did offer sexual services to men, however some of them did not and these women were considered to have been more educated so they mainly entertained men at grand social gatherings. That being said unlike many western cultures prostitution was not necessarily frowned upon. There was evidence to suggest in the 1500s Japanese men paid for courtesans to have sexual relations in spite of them being married.

As the years went on these entertainment venues became more of a venue for entertaining the Japanese male clientage, other than offering sexual services. Interestingly enough the first people to call themselves Geisha were men but in the mid-eighteenth century the term was first used for women. In the 1760s and 70s the Japanese Geisha became more renowned for their excellence in dance, theatre and rhetoric rather than the role of a courtesan. That being said it was not unheard of for some Japanese Geisha to have sexual relations with their clients. At the beginning of the nineteenth century the term ‘Geisha’ was fully recognised as a role for women.

There is also a hierarchy system that the Japanese Geisha use. On one end of the hierarchy there a high-class Japanese Geishas. These would include; the Gion Kobu, Pontocho and Kamishichiken districts of the Japanese Geisha in Kyoto. Considered by many to be at the middle of the Geisha rankings are, Gion Higashi and Miyagawa-cho, again two more Geisha districts in Kyoto. Towards the lower end of the hierarchy there is Geisha who worked at hot spring resorts and considered to not be authentic Geisha by the higher strands in the hierarchy. The hierarchy system to determine the class of Geisha is still in effect today.

In more recent history the whole topic of whether the Japanese Geisha were prostitutes flared up again and a sharp decline in the profession occurred as a result of more women needed to help the Japanese war effort. On the note of prostitution many prostitutes during World War Two referred to themselves as Geisha girls. This did taint the reputation of the Geisha community as it sparked off the whole debate about whether or not the Japanese Geisha should be treated in the same light as prostitutes. Another reason why World War Two was an important year for the Geisha community was because they were needed to work in factories in 1944. However when the war was over the Japanese Geisha resumed practice again, yet this created many divisions amongst the Japanese Geisha community and changed the way how the Geisha worked by the time US occupation in Japan occurred.

Today the Japanese Geisha still continue, although the numbers have dwindled over time. It is unheard of for young Japanese children to train as a Geisha, there are still some Japanese teenagers or graduates who decide to train and become a Geisha.

Social Structure of Feudal Japan

I have always liked Japanese history. I think like many others I was attracted by the samurai and ninja stories as well as the beautiful architecture and the charm of the pagodas. And I am sure many of you are familiar with these warriors and other members of society such as geisha and courtesans due to movies, and novels popularising their image. However, I always have the feeling that because of this, we miss the wider picture and we tend to forget that there was more to their society than just samurai and geisha to the sociopolitical and economic structure of Japan. Moreover, this is a system that remained untouched for a long time- various centuries- and that i would like to explore with you today. Traditionally speaking, the feudal period in Japanese history spreads between the years 1185 and 1603. During this time,  Japanese society was structured in different layers or strata, in what may resemble the classic pyramidal division. However, I would like to point out that, although it is like that for the most part, this system does not fully apply (I will explain why). Nevertheless, and like in the case of most societies at this time in Europe and elsewhere in the world, the nobility comprised around 12% of the population. The overall stratification goes as follows:

The Emperor

The Japanese emperor was considered to be of divine origin. Generally speaking, the emperor did not care much for the political or economic issues of the nation. In fact he acted more like a figure-head while the Shogun actually  ruled the country and controlled the land. Nevertheless the emperor was still the head religious figure of Japanese society, and his court would have counted with both Buddhist and Shinto priests.

The Shogun

These were the effective rulers of medieval Japan. The Shogun were military leaders  with political and economic power that they exercised on behalf- or instead of- the emperor. However they still had to undertake the ceremony of being appointed by the emperor as a way to acquire legitimacy. Their title seems to have been hereditary in characters, and their seat of power was known as the bakufu (tent office/government- referring to their role in the military and capability to rule). There were two main shogunate during this period, the Kamakura shogunate (1192-1333) and the Ashikaga shogunate (1336-1573).

The Daimyo

There have being acknowledged around 260 Daimyo in this period. They were court nobles with large domains, although sometimes they have been understood as warlords. They were directly subordinated to the Shogun and possessed economic and military power. Furthermore, the Daimyo had the right to collect ichimangoku (salaries) from the lands they owned and that were transferred within the family, as these were hereditary holdings.

The Samurai

This is perhaps the caste better known to us all. The Samurai formed around 10% of the total population of feudal Japan. They work at the service of the Daimyo, to whom they owed obedience and loyalty to their masters and followed the strict path of the Bushido. The violation of the Bushido code would end with the life of the Samurai by the ritual of Seppuku . Nevertheless, the samurai also had some privileges such as the having their family lineage traced by a surname, or a coat of arms. Perhaps, the more important of these benefits was that they could carry weapons. As an interesting note,  it also seems that some women may have been allowed to serve as samurai, but always under the leadership of a man.

The not so privileged population

The lower strata of the Japanese feudal society was formed by craftsmen, farmers and villagers. Experts have suggested that there was some sort of hierarchy amongst the peasantry, meaning further classification and stratification. In this way, farmers would traditionally be at the top due to their economic contribution. Nevertheless, there was a difference in ranking between farmers who own their land and those who did not. Farmers would be followed by craftsmen and artisans due to their production value- they also had their own reserved area in the city that secluded them from the lower merchants and other classes. Interestingly, merchants seem to have been appreciated the least- this seems to be because within the social philosophy and mind of feudal Japan, influenced by Confucian ideals, they were seeing as parasites, making profit from other people’s work. Moreover, there was a social class even below of the vast majority of society.

That was the place occupied by the ronin. A ronin was a wandering, master-less samurai, who was considered an outcast and lived in the fringes of society. Generally, these would have been people with a previous military background, mainly samurai who had been dishonoured, therefore cast aside. Due to their privileged-and-lost status, many of these men became hired swords and mercenaries, some even criminals in an attempt to seek revenge for their disgrace. However, their position as outcasts was mainly perceived and attributed by the Daimyo.

In addition, there were people who lived in the peripheries of society and had their own strata depending on their origins or role within society. This collective was formed by the so-called Ainu. The  Ainu are an ethnic minority in Japan (and some areas of Russia). Many of them were discriminated and even used as slaves. However it seems that those employed in industries that had a social taboo could also be included as living in the margin of society. Finally, it has to be considered that prostitutes, courtesans and geisha, also were independent to the pyramidal system. Regardless of their position in the entertainment, company or pleasure industries, these people were ranked depending on their skill and beauty.

As an afterword it is worth mentioning that moving into the Edo period, this social order continued in a very similar fashion. In fact, it would not be until the Meiji Restoration that these social hierarchy changed, mainly due to the disappearance or diminishing of the military ranks. However, most of these traditions and structures prevailed in the Japanese mind until the Occupation period, and some argue are still reminiscent nowadays.

GOJIRA! 60 Yeas Since Godzilla

In case you were not aware of this, 2014 saw the 60th anniversary of the original Godzilla movie! It was only last year  that our screens saw the new interpretation of this film, which is an icon of 20th century cinema. But there is much more to Godzilla than just photo-grams. Therefore, here is a little insight for you into Japanese culture, cinema and social anxieties.

The first Godzilla movie was directed by Ishiro Honda, who had worked for many years as the assistant of the renown director Akira Kurosawa. He served his time under the Japanese army during the Second World War, and in fact was imprisoned in China and made a war hostage. This had a huge impact in the production of his movies, and of course is reflected in Godzilla, but this was a shared memory and feeling, which makes the message only coherent for those who experienced Japan during the War. As anything in film and reception studies, the audience conditions the encrypted message of the product. Only his fellow Japanese could truly understand that Godzilla is in fact not a film about a monster, but about a revolution in warfare: the atomic bomb.

But before we move on, lest get some details about this creature. To this date, Godzilla has appeared in at least 28 movies. Its original name, Gojira, comes from 2 words, one English, the other Japanese. Thus, Gojira is the combination of gorilla- inspired by the movie King Kong which had featured the screens 1933 and had somewhat set the standard frame for a monster movie- and ‘kujira’, which means whale in Japanese. Godzilla, is nothing but a Western translation of this conceptual gigantic monster like creature from the sea. However, in the whole series of movies, this creature is not always presented as an evil force, but sometimes as a hero, for the sake of plot/character development. Shogo Tomiyama, who was the producer for some of the Godzilla movies, made an interesting comparison between Godzilla and the Shinto god of Destruction, explaining that it was creature beyond moral agency, therefore able to act for what we could perceived as good or bad in equal terms.

With this in mind the concept of Godzilla’s origins may seem strange, or perhaps revealing to you. As I mentioned earlier, Godzilla is meant to be a metaphor for nuclear power. Godzilla is meant to be an undersea ancient creature who was empowered by radiation. But in Honda’s mind the creature could only be the reflection of one thing: the atomic bombs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Moreover, it has been suggested that the incident of Daigo Fukuryu Maru- or Lucky Dragon- a Japanese tuna fishing boat which has been exposed to radiation in the United States after a nuclear fallout at Castlebravo thermonuclear (1954) may have contributed to this fear in the subconscious of Japanese collective memory…1954 was the same year Gojira was released…

We have to remember that this was a society that, after the war, had seen a huge change to their politics and culture as their island nation was occupied and taken over by the United States. Japan only regain back its freedom in 1952. So the Japanese generation of the 50s and 60s fought to find their identity in this oriental westernised environment they found themselves living in. A lot of their art and creative efforts were put to show dissatisfaction and used for the sake of protest…Thus, underwater King Kong tormented by the Japanese terror of bombing was created.

It has been estimated that 9.6 million Japanese people went to see the movie when it was released. It’s popularity was also a reflection of the 1950’s Japanese golden age of cinema, and Gojira played its part by promoting Japan to the international scene and the reinterpretation of this quasi-legendary creature by the American blockbusters, under the name of Godzilla. 60 years later, it still drags people to the cinemas, creating this scary nostalgia of the atomic dinosaur who still haunts Japan.

The Teahouse of the August Moon and American Perceptions of Okinawa

The Teahouse of the August Moon satirises both American and Japanese culture, drawing upon stereotypes and using them to form the foundations of the film. For example, American actor Marlon Brando plays the leading role of the Okinawan Sakini, and throughout the film he is the point of reference for the audience and the other characters. He draws attention to the differences in culture between the Americans and Okinawans in such a way that it should not be interpreted as offensive – there are just as many stereotypes about one culture as there are for the next. This piece will set out to reveal the American perceptions of Okinawa through the eyes of the main characters in this film. It will draw upon the idea of Okinawa as an outpost and the officers that are on duty; the stereotypical nature of Okinawans and the possible explanation for their want of a teahouse, not a school; the primitive nature of Okinawan life; the colonial assumptions of US reform efforts and the reception that the film received.

The film tells the story of an US Military Captain sent to Tobiki by a stubborn Colonel in Okinawa in order to build a school and teach the village democracy. Sakini, the Japanese-English interpreter narrates the film and acts as the bridge between the Okinawans and the American Occupiers, promising to give the village what they want, not what the Americans think they ought to have. Stereotypes are drawn upon in the form of a rowdy, loud mouthed American Colonel, the calm, child-like Okinawans and a geisha whom the Captain initially believes to be a prostitute – a common misconception made by Europeans and Americans alike. The moral of the film, looking beyond the stereotype, is one of acceptance – the American Captain has accepted that the Okinawans know what they want for themselves, more so than the Americans do, and the Okinawans have accepted that while the Americans are occupying their land, they may as well try make something out of it.

We are first introduced to Sakini, the interpreter, at the beginning of the film where he begins the tale of the teahouse. Immediately, Okinawan perceptions are addressed and contrasted with those of America and the result is rather entertaining. He reveals that certain things acceptable in one country are not in another, i.e. in Okinawa, they do not have locks on their doors as it could be perceived to be bad manners not to trust their neighbour, however, the lock and key business is a big industry in America and therefore concludes that bad manners equal good business. We see this throughout the film, epitomised by Captain Fisby. Fisby is too similar to the Okinawans to be able to ever have a considerable amount of control over them; he is too polite therefore, he is not a good businessman. Purdy however is the complete opposite of Fisby and the exemplary American Colonel stereotype – he thinks he is right, even if he is proven wrong. For example, a scene in the film sees Sakini explain that Tobiki is at the top of Okinawa, Purdy believes it to be at the bottom and retrieves a map to boisterously prove his point. Sakini glances at the map and immediately points out that it is upside down; Purdy then blames the army for not making a proper map, refusing to believe his logic is flawed.

The author of the book The Teahouse of the August Moon, Vern Sneider, was a member of the US military team that landed in Okinawa in 1945 and he became leader of the village of Tobaru (changed to Tobiki in the novel). It would appear that Sneider is taking advantage of his first hand experience within the occupied territory and trivialising common stereotypes in order to try to neutralise feelings towards both cultures. Published in 1951, only six years after the end of the war and the beginning of the Occupation, the feelings that were characterised in the film were still very much felt amongst Okinawans and Americans. Historian Andrew Gordon goes further and states that ‘in creating a public memory, mainstream historians likewise produced a homogenous version of a Japanese past that left out those on the margins (women, atom bomb victims, Burakumin, Okinawans), who in turn were prompted to write their own separate histories.’[1] For this reason, ‘as a satire and comedy, The Teahouse of the August Moon, like many memoirs and articles written by Occupationers, served to soften and minimise the cold, hard fact of Occupation.’[2] This leads back to the colonial attitudes of the American occupiers. They (Colonel Purdy) failed to see past the stereotypical Japanese society, and instead dryly emphasises them.

One stereotype drawn upon due to the colonial assumptions made by the US military, and in fact the majority of western civilisation, is that the Geisha are prostitutes. Geisha originated from oiran in the Edo period when prostitution was legal. However, after the Meiji Restoration, the government decided that there should be a divide between Geishas and prostitutes, as the former was not to be sullied by associating with the latter. Furthermore, confusion was heightened when ‘geisha girls’ were known to be engaging in prostitution, dressing like a Geisha and having sexual relations with the allied forces in Occupied Japan – the westerners could not tell the difference between the imitated and the real, henceforth, their modern misrepresentation. In the film, Captain Fisby is all too familiar with this misrepresentation, and assumes that the Geisha, Lotus Blossom, is trying to engage in sexual activity, when all she wanted to do was to help him put on his kimono. Sakini at this point corrects Fisby’s notion of prostitution and explains the Geisha in a simple, yet effective way; ‘Poor man like to feel rich, rich man like to feel wise. Sad man like to feel happy, so all go to Geisha house, and tell troubles to Geisha girl’[3]. She is there to entertain, to sing, recite verse, play a musical instrument and dance – to help the man forget his troubles.

Naoko Shibusawa states that The Teahouse of the August Moon ‘satirized the Occupation and presented a more ambiguous view about who should be in charge and who should be teaching whom, it depicts the Okinawans as childlike, hard-working people who squabble about trifling matters, trivialize the meaning of democracy, and care most about creating a teahouse for their amusement’. The Okinawans are presented as a simple folk, arguing about matters that to any other would seem trivial, for example, Lotus Blossom is unwelcome in the village as the other female inhabitants feel like she is competition and will get more attention than they do. Fisby agrees to let Lotus Blossom teach the other women to be Geisha’s and to do so, it would only seem fair that they had a teahouse to be able to celebrate and practice their lessons. Fisby reluctantly concedes and the idea of a school and teaching democracy is forgotten, after all, in a town where the majority of the population is adults, why is there a need for a school? However, ironically, the Okinawans have no need for democracy because the US army is occupying their lands, undemocratically giving out orders. When there is need for democracy, their primitive and traditional ways lead them in the right direction.

The primitive nature that the Okinawans adopt in the film, reflect the animalistic methods used by Colonel Purdy. It could have been that as the same attributes were shared between both population and Colonel, that he was the only man for the job. Other factors to consider are that as Okinawa was seen as an outpost far from the mainland and the capital Tokyo where there were not enough officers, Purdy is possibly too stupid to be given a post anywhere else in Japan.

To conclude, the film was a success and was nominated for six Golden Globe awards. It set out to be a satirical comedy focusing on the perceptions of Americans and Okinawans of each other and I believe it achieved its aims. There have been critics who have fought against this satire, for example Bosley Crowther suggests that ‘as the American captain who gets completely enmeshed in the seductive toils of a Okinawan village when he tries to subdue it to the useful and the good, throws himself into this enjoyment with such grinning and grotesque gusto that one gets the uneasy feeling that his captain is mildly mad.’[4] It would appear that Crowther takes the side of the steadfast Colonel in that Okinawans need to be taught democracy and as they lost the war, they need to listen to those who won. How can it be that America deem another societies ways inept because they do not need democracy or technology to live, just culture and street-wise survival instinct.

[1] Andrew Gordon, Postwar Japan as History (Los Angeles, 1993), 462.

[2] Naoko Shibusawa, America’s Geisha Ally: Reimagining the Japanese Enemy (Harvard University Press, 2010), 262.

[3] The Teahouse of the August Moon, Daniel Mann, MGM, (1956).

[4] B. Crowther, ‘The Teahouse of the August Moon’, The New York Times, 30th November 1956.

Saburo Ienaga and the fight against Textbook Censorship

For this week’s blog update I am going to talk about the Japanese historian and educator Saburo Ienaga (1913-2002) and his lawsuits against the Japanese Ministry of Education (MOE) from 1965 to their climax in 1997. His struggle against textbook censorship was one of the most important social and political struggles in Post-war Japan and helped to introduce many post-war students and more widely, the Japanese public to the events and horrors committed by the Japanese military during the war. Therefore, in this post I will look at each of the three lawsuits and explain what each of them meant and examine whether they were successful in their aims and then finish with a conclusion.

To understand the textbook trials, I will firstly reveal a bit about Ienaga’s upbringing and his life before and during World War II. Ienaga was born in 1913 into a family of near poverty with his father serving as an officer in the army whilst Ienaga was growing up. Ienaga’s experience of school education left him firmly believing in democracy and world peace rather than Japan’s ‘uniqueness’. Ienaga did not speak out against the Japanese Government during the war as he felt that it would make the deaths of the Japanese soldiers meaningless. As for political stance, Ienaga was a Progressive or leaned more to the left side of politics and he also stood against state intervention in individual’s cultural and spiritual work. He summed up his position in a letter in March 1966; “I believe in the pride of Japan. But unlike some of the people in the Ministry of Education, I absolutely cannot endorse Emperor Jimmu, the Korean annexation and the Greater East Asia War as the “positive side” of Japanese history.” [1] Whilst Ienaga was part of the wider progressive movement it was through him that the Ministry of Education was challenged.

Ienaga’s history textbook the Shin Nihonshi (revised edition, first submitted in 1952) was rejected and revised over three times between 1955 and 1964. Because of this Ienaga was convinced that the textbook screening was a form of censorship so he took the case to court against the Ministry of Education in 1965. The screening process, after the American Occupation ended in 1952 was controlled by the Conservative backed Ministry of Education. The textbooks were produced by publishing companies and the content was not prescribed but screened for factual accuracy by the Ministry of Education. The system was in many ways supporting the Conservatives and nationalists as ‘by screening out what cannot be said (“factually inaccurate statements”) rather than stating what should be said, the screening process effectively allows conservatives and nationalists to limit the contents of textbooks by continually challenging the “factual accuracy” of the numbers killed in the Nanking massacre or by simply dropping “masochistic” topics.’ [2]

The First lawsuit began in 1964, with the primary objective being to demonstrate that state screening of textbooks was unconstitutional (e.g. a violation of the freedom of expression and scholarship) and that it was contrary to the Fundamental Education Law of 1947 (i.e. a violation of the principle protecting education from improper control). In the then current edition, Ienaga had highlighted the ‘reckless war’ in the depiction of the Asia-Pacific War and had shown the darker side of the conflict. This perspective on Japanese war history highlighted Japan’s role as a victimizer and aggressor in the war rather than as a victim. The victim narrative was the perspective that the MOE wanted to show to the students in their textbooks and also what the Japanese government wanted to portray to the public. As Ienaga set about with his sixth revision of Shin Nihonshi (1967 edition) the Ministry screened the edition but could find no improvements. It is also worth noting that each of the lawsuits stayed dormant in the court process and in the public eye, long after they had begun.

The chief objective of the second lawsuit (1967) was the same as the first but its advantages were that it was an administrative suit, the legal procedure was less complicated than that of the earlier “damage claim” suit. By the end of 1967, because of the first suit, details of the textbook screening process and the exact reasons for the rejection of Ienaga’s textbook were emerging, despite government resistance. The second suit was ruled in Ienaga’s favour in 1970 at the Tokyo District Court, where it was then passed up to the Tokyo High Court where it won again. The first lawsuit however didn’t do as well as the Tokyo District Court agreed there had been some ‘abuses of power but that the state had the right to regulate the content of education and declared state textbook screening constitutional.’ [3] Ienaga’s victories as well as the mild public attention that the cases were getting allowed the system to become relaxed allowing more material concerning Japanese war atrocities could be included. In 1973 for example, Ienaga’s revised Shin Nihonshi passed the screening process even though it included more detailed passages about Japan’s invasion of China and Japanese colonial policy in Korea.

However things began to change after the Liberal Democrat Party (LDP) won a majority in both Houses in 1980, and continued stressing a need for a more nationalist curriculum. The LDP had significant of support from Right-Wing intellectuals, economists and big businesses who agreed the need for a more patriotic history. Even against this, the highly public battles and media attention showed how state control over education had strengthened and how Japanese wartime atrocities were becoming water-down in textbooks.

The third lawsuit’s goal in 1982 ‘was still to demonstrate the unconstitutionally of state textbooks screening. In the third suit, however, he and his counsel challenged the Ministry’s “abuses of power” in requesting or suggesting changes of textbook descriptions concerning specific historical events.’ [4] Ienaga also challenged eight specific points in ‘arena of historical truths’ – 4 on the Japanese invasion of China, 1 concerned with Japanese colonisation of Korea, another involved the battle of Okinawa and two cover domestic protests against imperial power. In 1989 the third lawsuit passed the Tokyo District Court and was appealed to the High Court. Ienaga wanted to win the main point that state textbook screening was unconstitutional. In 1993 the Tokyo High Court ruled that Ienaga’s contention regarding the Nanjing massacre had, through the Ministry’s screening process, been excessive and unlawful but ruled against Ienaga on Unit 731. It finally reached the Supreme Court after an appeal from Ienaga in 1997 and reached a conclusion that allowed Ienaga to mention Unit 731. The Supreme Court deemed in 1989 that the second suit had no benefit because Ienaga’s 1969 book was no longer in use anyway. The first lawsuit was dismissed in 1993 as the court claimed that the Ministry had not been excessively unreasonable. ‘Although Ienaga lost his attempt to ban government textbook screening as unconstitutional, the court held that the Ministry’s requests for revision must be based on views, verified or commonly accepted in the field of history.’ [5]

To conclude, the textbook trials undertaken by Ienaga were a long and difficult process, in which he faced an influential foe in the form of the Ministry of Education. The trials showed to the people of Japan and the World the dangers of covering up history as it is very difficult to move into the future without solving the problems of the past. The screening process stills goes on today, every three years or so a new or revised Conservative and Progressive textbook is screened and then it is decided whether they it is suitable for release. Ienaga’s efforts and successes should not be forgotten as they represent an important turning point in the memorialisation of Japanese war history in Japan. The trials therefore, reflect the growing need in Japanese society for a national history and identity that incorporates both a victim and victimizer narrative.

References and sources

[1] R, Huntsberry., ‘“Suffering History”: the textbook trial of Ienaga Saburo’, Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 44 (1976), 253.
[2] Philip Seaton., Japan’s Contested War Memories: The ‘memory rifts’ in historical consciousness of World War II (London, 2007), 145.
[3] Yoshiko, Nozaki & Hiromitsu, Inokuchi., ’Japanese Education, Nationalism, and Ienaga Saburō’s Textbook Lawsuits’, in Laura Hein and Mark Selden (ed.), Censoring History, Citizenship and Memory in Japan, Germany and the United States (New York, 2000), 109.
[4] Ibid., 114
[5] Ibid., 119


Manchukuo: Master of Puppets

Forged by relentless Japanese military takeover on 15th September 1932, the new state of Manchukuo was not built to last. Born in the northeastern Chinese province of Manchuria, the state existed under elementary independence of its colonial master, which installed the puppet emperor Mr Henry Puyi. In response to the view of their ‘manifest destiny’ to expand and reform areas of their neighbouring Asian lands, Japan set its sights on Manchuria decades before the eventual takeover, believing the province to be within their natural sphere for expansion as Manchuria remained one of the few Chinese provinces to maintain its own dynastic independence from the ruling of Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang.

Fulfilling Japan’s desire to secure raw materials and supplies for her own population alongside an exclusive market for her manufactured products, Manchukuo quickly became worth the risk. With fertile land and 34 million ready and willing workers, to improve its industrial output, the province’s largely unharvested gold, iron ore and coal resources attracted Japanese attention not only for her own uses, but also as a means of starving China of the necessary natural reserves to ultimately become an efficient rival machine. Alongside such natural potential, Manchukuo also satisfied a significant man-made Japanese requirement, as its vast lands would accommodate the ever-growing Japanese population that the mainland struggled to house, and also provide a secure homeland for the Japanese migrants already living in Manchuria. Japan’s imperial improvements for Manchukuo included a road building programme, which expected 4,000km of new routes by June 1934 and a merge of telegraph, telephone and radio services to easily and efficiently regulate communications within the state.

Following the Manchurian Incident of 1931 which was publicly displayed to Japanese audiences as a Chinese uprising, the Japanese felt a collective sense of superiority over the disrespectful Chinese people who would be tamed by Japan through its initial step to pacify Manchuria. Throughout the establishment of the new state, Japan’s view of an inferior and ill-equipped Chinese race frequently made itself known, most notably through propaganda warning the population of Manchukuo of the ‘barbarian people’ across the borders that were waiting to strike on the province if it were to lie dormant and vulnerable much longer without Japanese rule. The invasion frequently intended to broaden Japanese power within China with a view, albeit grand, to transforming the nation into a Japanese colony as a whole. The Japanese government stated that through Manchukuo, they would be saving China from decades of playing second fiddle to the Soviet Union, effectively being bullied into submission by the communist state, as well as effectively blocking Chiang Kai-shek from reforming north-east Asia. Acting as a mainland anchor for Japanese security, Manchukuo became Japan’s shield from the threats of Western imperialism, Soviet communism and consequently Chinese communism.

The primary aim of the creation of the state of Manchukuo was to utilise the existing Manchuria railroad, with Japanese power assumption over the system almost instantly as a method of bridging the gap between China and Japan’s colony of Korea while simultaneously opening opportunities for further expansion in the direction of Mongolia. Three decades prior to the establishment of Manchukuo, Japan was strategically working to forge the South Manchurian railroads to their advantage with the aim of eventual entire control. By 1933, Japan’s armies were forging the foundations of an ‘enduring economic and strategic organisation to meet the Empire’s needs’ through the control of Manchuria’s northbound rail links to transport the wealth of harvested natural resources on Chinese land to its desired locations. The new railroad management scheme in March 1933 promised to promote the well-being of the Japan-Manchukuo relationship for defence purposes only, alongside the efficient restructuring of the railways to eliminate futile Chinese opposition, ensuring the full repayment of reparations owed to Japanese interests, specifically the South Manchuria Railway. The railroads were organised more efficiently by Japan in the first two years of the takeover than it had ever been arranged under the previous Chang regime. In 1934, Japan made a promise to install 4,000km of new tracks in the coming decade as a means of transporting their troops to the Russian front with ease. The South Manchurian Railway established in 1935 was considered the ‘economic spearhead of Japan’s expansion in China’ and emphasised the great importance of haste in taking action to hold back communism in the Soviet Union and China.

Japan obtained a valuable lesson from the creation of Manchukuo in its initial attempt to economically control their new independent nation entirely through state capitalism and banning the zaibatsu from participating in growing its economy, however these were fundamental players in forging a grassroots economy, consequently stifling Manchukuo’s finances. Locating its birth in 1932 in the midst of global depression and the 5.9 billion yen cost of establishing Manchukuo between the years of 1932 and 1941, initial fears were expressed that Manchukuo would cause more harm than good. The Japanese intended on organising their new independent state in a way to achieve ‘a self-sufficient economic unit’ in comparison with its own, through an outright expression of a desire to belong in a world of total war through its imminent industrial prowess. Within its first year, Manchukuo defied expectations of failure by consistently making progress in the initial years, particularly in the direction of financial improvement with the establishment of its own national bank on June 15 1932 which distributed a new coin monetary system as opposed to the previous worthless notes. The Manchukuo yuan, based on the silver standard, restored monetary stability and was welcomed by farmers and merchants who were suffering under the Chang dynasty, receiving too little in payment for their high-priced soy beans. In the spring of 1933, Manchukuo launched an economic program to tie the loose ends created by the new state, preventing the monopolization of the plentiful natural resources in the region by any one class, controlling the state’s economic activities from above, and ensuring the employment of foreign skills and experience through encouraging foreign investments. Two concepts of economic governance were used in Manchukuo, with a combination of state-managed economic development using the neighbouring Soviet as a model and a self-sufficient production sphere or ‘bloc economy’. An unexpected but welcome side effect of the economic improvements was the reduction in poverty among natives which quelled anti-imperialist protest, opening Manchukuo to unquestioned Japanese rule.

Japan’s economic management of Manchukuo combined methods of state capitalism with national socialism, which merged ‘the advantages of public ownership and private management’, was considered a revolutionary approach that brought suggestions that Manchukuo marked a stage of Japanese colonialism where Japan tried and tested its economic theories in its new state, as Young compares it to a ‘laboratory’, and would then export the successful policies back home to be implemented. Japan’s imperial expansion into Chinese territory unintentionally brought a number of appealing promises to the Chinese people of Manchuria, specifically the offer of prosperity through such successful economic risks, which ‘means more to Chinese than political choice’, allowing Japan a free reign to complete control. Addressing the trading ‘Open Door’ in Manchukuo’s economic situation, Timperley’s contemporary article argues that ‘the door may be open but there are too many Japanese crowding the threshold for anybody else to be able to get even a look in’ as Japan expressed no desire to share Manchukuo’s wealth with foreign traders or even native Chinese. Through pushing aside Western competition with radically cheap prices that Britain and America could not possibly hope to rival, Japan assumed its rightful monopoly over its new state’s economic advancement. However, the speed at which Manchukuo succeeded economically brought suspicions of the legality of their actions, with goods smuggled into Manchukuo from Dairen avoiding export charges.

Japan’s subliminal control of the supposed central Manchukuo government blurred the meaning of independence for its new colony, with Japanese officials in power over the Manchukuo administration and Mr Henry Puyi and his ‘phantom cabinet’ answering to Japan at every turn. Manchukuo instantly declared itself independent of China, therefore snubbing the League of Nations designed to protect nations from such violations of national rights that Japan exceeded through its takeover. Manchukuo gradually became an efficient state through the effective mobilisation of the Japanese and Manchurian population in military, political, economic and cultural outputs, such as the Manchukuo Army, to evoke a sense of belonging and patriotism to the motherland Japan in the new state. The ‘revolution of 1932’ soon became the ‘restoration of 1932’, as outside views quickly realised the Japanese invasion had undoubtedly improved the region’s output in its first year. However, with all its successes, Manchukuo faced an unrelenting internal problem of banditry and the maintenance of order in a new state born out of the chaos and corruption of the previous Chang dynasty. While the independent state of Manchukuo was short-lived, arguments remain that the province of Manchuria was always independent, as China had never governed Manchuria and the Manchu dynasty never ruled China.

Manchukuo, the ‘child of conflict’ was handed over to European control following Japan’s crippling defeat at the close of the Second World War, and as a consequence suffered economic collapse and national distress, suggesting the Japanese occupation and governance significantly stabilised its Chinese colony, proving that Manchukuo was largely a risk worth taking.


‘As to Recognizing Manchukuo’, World Affairs (1932) 73-75.

‘Japan’s Railway Control in Manchuria’, Foreign Affairs, 12 (1934) 294.

Akagi, Roy H., ‘Japan and the Open Door in Manchukuo’, Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science (1933) 54-63.

Akagi, Roy H., ‘Future of American Trade with Manchukuo’, Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science (1940) 138-143.

Fenby, Jonathan, Generalissimo: Chiang Kai-Shek and the China He Lost (London, 2003).

Harries, Meirion, Soldiers Of The Sun: The Rise and Fall of the Imperial Japanese Army (New York, 1991).

Hunter, Janet E., The Emergence of Modern Japan: An Introductory History Since 1853 (New York, 1989). (Hunter, 1989).

Kushner, Barak, The Thought War: Japanese Imperial Propaganda (Honolulu, 2006). (Kushner, 2006).

Pyle, Kenneth B., The Making of Modern Japan (Lexington, 1978). (Pyle, 1978).

Timperley, H.J., ‘Japan in Manchukuo’, Foreign Affairs, 12 (1934) 295-305.

Young, Louise, Japan’s Total Empire: Manchuria and the Culture of Wartime Imperialism (California, 1999).

Formosa – The Beauty and the Beast

Uncrowded, untouched and uncivilised, Ilha Formosa was somewhat hurriedly entitled the ‘Beautiful Island’ by Portuguese sailors in the sixteenth century, yet aboriginally named Taiwan by its Asian neighbours. The island may have seemed beautiful to seafarers accustomed to the Canton River, but historians document Formosa’s fertile landscape, native medicinal plants and abundant sulphur supplies with less vigour than their descriptions of its unwelcoming, grotesquely tattooed aborigines with no written language or civilised culture. Formosa’s history is steeped in tales of pirate-infested waters and widespread malaria, making it a No-Man’s Land rarely frequented by marauders, and this fearful image of Formosa only intensified as its Asian neighbours assumed their colonial powers over the island.

Formosa has swapped hands numerous times in its past, leaving its native tribes with a void of identity and in constant fear of attack and upheaval. The earliest known settlers on the island, the Longkius tribe, present since before Christ, were ousted in the sixth century by Malay invaders, the descendants of whom reside in the mountainous regions of the island to this day. The island remained unrecognised by its Asian neighbours for a thousand years following the Malays’ refusal to pay tribute to the Chinese emperor in the seventh century. During this time, Formosa’s relations with China were fraught with sieges and tentative conflict, and the island consequently became a formidable pirate lair, a hive of underhand trade between the conflicted empires of Japan and China, until its eventual recognition by China in 1682.

In an attempt to prize the Pescadores isles from the Chinese grasp, the Dutch invasion of Asia began with the cession of Formosa in 1623. However this takeover was short-lived as a new generation of Chinese Ming loyalists reinstated their interest in the island and consequently gained control forty years later. Formosa’s largely ineffective and neglectful subjugation at China’s hands in the following two centuries robbed the island of its native peace, leaving the weaker native tribe Pepo-whan ‘barbarians of the plains’ to reside in the south and merge with their conquerors, while the wild Che-whan ‘savages’ evacuated north for the mountains. Law and order were lost, seemingly irretrievably, on the island as the Chinese invaders frequently fought amongst themselves and the natives, provoking the Chinese statement that on Formosa there was “every three years disorder, and every five years a rebellion”. The unrelenting social degradation left sailors in the surrounding waters fearful of becoming stranded on the island and facing certain death at the hands of the natives, as the period of 1840 to 1895 saw the losses of eighty ships and two thousand lives to the clutches of Formosa. The deaths of fifty-four Ryukyuan fishermen on Formosan waters in 1871 were blamed by the Japanese on the vicious aborigines in a move to gain the Ryukyu islands as a colony, and this consequently sparked an international drive to quell Formosa’s unrest. British, German and American efforts combined to calm the island, but it was a gentle yet firm Japanese expedition to the southern tribes in 1874 that began the process of re-civilisation, and consequently set Japanese colonial desires on Formosa.

Following the defeat of China in the 1894 Sino-Japanese war, Formosa was signed over to Japanese imperialism with the Treaty of Shimonoseki in 1895, and as a result the island became an important component of the Japanese colonial machine in the years before the Second World War as Japan’s ‘first outright possession’. For a brief period, the island was declared independent as the Republic of Formosa and at first offered to Great Britain, but within six months the island was occupied by Japanese troops by October 1895. Once Japan gained the Formosan people’s trust, however, the assimilation of the Japanese colony began with the installation of the Japanese general Gentaro as Formosan governor. While Japan seemed contented with the occupation and order of the civilised areas of Formosa within six years of its takeover, its unrelenting desire for the mountains inhabited by the natives was meant only to harvest the landscape’s resources unopposed by the aborigines. Occupying troops took a military stance against the ‘savages’ at a high cost of lives on both sides, using wire fencing and Guard Lines to section off occupied territories, although this move largely failed due to the ingenuity of the tribesmen to overcome such restraints. Invading militia would frequently use technology such as aeroplanes and, on one recorded occasion, bombs to intimidate the aborigines into obedience.

With a restored infrastructure and a boosted economy through the improvement of tea, rice and sugar production, Japan brought the civilised areas of Formosa an element of prosperity eventually, but the benefits offered to the natives were purely incidental, as Japan utilised Formosa for the advancement of the Japanese mainland security. Kominka movements were introduced on the island to advance the island’s assimilation by effectively eradicating traces of the native culture and identity to be replaced by Japanese equivalents, the most notable being the official use of the Japanese language. As a consequence, Japanese rule largely restored law and order to the island by 1920 following the island’s turbulent piratical history, making Formosa its most prosperous colony by 1927, yet despite its successful transformation, it remained a distinctly remote island from the mainland as most of the island’s economic trade took place in Japan, and as such, the island lacked tourist appeal both for Japanese and European visitors.

At the point of Formosa’s return to Chinese hands due to Japan’s Second World War defeat in 1945, 8 million Han Chinese nationals had migrated to the independent provincial island, a figure which would later include the population of the Chinese nationalist party who had been forced to retreat to the island after communist victory in 1949. Manned by Chiang Kai-shek, Formosa remained a largely contented single-party state under the Kuomintang for forty years, making a defiant stand as a symbol of Chinese freedom in the twentieth century aside from the strictly governed mainland, taking its rightful place in the free world orbit.

Formosa’s turbulent history of piracy and subjugation transformed the once ‘beautiful island’ into a No-Man’s Land, becoming home to millions of Chinese immigrants from the mainland and consequently outnumbering the inhospitable natives. While at first glance Taiwan would seem an inconsequential addition to her Asian neighbours’ colonial collections, it was Taiwan’s bountiful resources and unindustrialised landscape, complete with the challenge of overcoming the savages in the mountains, that kept them coming back for more.


‘Formosa’, The Geographical Journal, 2 (1893) 441-443.
De Bunsen, E. H., ‘Formosa’, The Geographical Journal, 70 (1927) 266-285.
Hornbeck, Stanley K., ‘Formosa’, World Affairs, 118 (1955) 2.
Hunter, Janet E., The Emergence of Modern Japan: An Introductory History Since 1853 (New York, 1989).
Steere, J. B., ‘Formosa’, Journal of the American Geographical Society of New York, 6 (1874) 302-334.

Intrview with Dr. Chris Aldous

SO! Ali and I ventured out to ask Dr Chris Aldous about his life and career. Chris is a very interesting person. As a historian he specialises in eastern history, mainly Japan, and apparently there are not many historians in the UK that study such thing!

So we asked him plenty of questions about this as well as some other general things related to history as an academic discipline, the students, changes and future.

Here is the result! Please listen to our video on You Tube or here:

Note: the recorder run out of battery right at the end of the interview. However, Ali has typed up a summarised answer to our time machine question. And here is it:

In response to our traditional time machine question, Chris said he would like to travel back to the moment that the Japanese emperor Hirohito publicly announced the Japanese surrender on August 15th 1945. Chris said he would be interested in being amongst the average Japanese civilians to hear their responses to the announcement, as the topic has long interested him in his career.

Anyway, we hope you like it! We will have more soon!