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January 29th 1868: the day the Imperial Banners flew

Monday, 29 January, 2018· Last Updated on: Monday, 29 January, 2018

in 2018: 150th Anniversary of the Meiji Restoration

On July 8th 1853 four warships appear at the mouth of Edo Bay, threatening Edo, the shogun’s capital, today known as Tokyo. Their leader is the American Commodore Matthew Perry, on a mission to open Japan, which has been closed to foreigners for 250 years. Their arrival sparks civil war between north and south …

Troops clash on the bridge at Fushimi

Troops clash on the bridge at Fushimi
By Anonymous, 1870 (Saigo Takamori and Okubo Toshimichi , by Mori) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

This year is the 150th anniversary of the Meiji Restoration of 1868, when Japan catapulted virtually overnight from feudal rule under the shoguns to a modern western state. It was the climax of fifteen years of extraordinary turmoil in Japan, culminating in 1868 with a series of dramatic battles.

I’ll be marking the anniversary throughout the year with blog posts commemorating the events of the entire 15 year period and also specific events that occurred in 1868, starting today – the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Toba Fushimi.

Picture a country divided into 260 princedoms each ruled by a daimyo warlord with his own private army. Some are richer, some poorer, some unimaginably wealthy and powerful. For 250 years the shogun in his castle in the city of Edo – one of the largest, most splendid cities in the world – has held the country together, imposing his rule over all and keeping the country at peace. One way of keeping the peace has been to keep out all foreigners – but the arrival of the American ships turns this delicate balance upside down.

For 15 years after the arrival of the Black Ships there is growing turmoil between north and south. The northern clans – much like Scottish clans – are loyal to the shogun. The southern clans, traditionally the shogun’s ancient enemies, want to take over power themselves and take as their figurehead the teenage emperor Mutsuhito (who will go down in history as Emperor Meiji) whose father – a much stronger figure – has recently met with a suspicious death.

Shogun Yoshinobu Tokugawa photographed in Osaka by Frederick Sutton in 1867

Shogun Yoshinobu Tokugawa photographed in Osaka by Frederick Sutton in 1867[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The young Emperor Mutsuhito (Emperor Meiji)by Uchida Kuichi

The young Emperor Mutsuhito (Emperor Meiji)by Uchida Kuichi
[Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The country tumbles into anarchy with brawling and battles on the streets of Kyoto. The militant Choshu clan tries to kidnap the boy emperor and sets fire to the city. Secretly the southern clans – primarily the Satsuma from the deep south of the country and the Choshu – plot a bloody coup.

Then the shogun, Yoshinobu Tokugawa, comes up with an idea. He agrees to cede nominal power to the teenage emperor, thus unifying the two sides, assuming that the House of Tokugawa will remain the most powerful clan in the ruling coalition that follows.

But this does not satisfy the southerners. They seize the imperial palace in Kyoto in a coup d’état. The result is full scale civil war.

On the evening of January 27th 1868, the two armies face each other in an area called Toba Fushimi, just to the south of Kyoto. Lined up on one side are the northerners, the shogun’s troops. On the other are the southerners, primarily men of the Satsuma clan. The northerners outnumber the southerners 3 to 1 but the southerners have a secret plan.

Shogun Yoshinobu organising defences at Osaka Castle

Shogun Yoshinobu organising defences at Osaka Castle
[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Imperial banner that flew at Toba Fushimi, now at Yasukuni Shrine

Rather blurry colour picture of the imperial banner that flew at Toba Fushimi, now at Yasukuni Shrine
By Uploadalt [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

That night the town of Fushimi burns. The sky overhead glows a dull red.

At first the fighting is fierce. The Satsuma are forced to give ground. Then, on the third day, January 29th, they unleash their trump card. Ichizo Okubo, one of the Satsuma leaders, has secretly arranged for his mistress in Kyoto to stitch red and white damask into imperial banners, showing the imperial chrysanthemum.

Now the banners flutter majestically above the battlefield. At first no one knows what they are. For centuries the emperors have been Pope-like figures hidden away in the imperial palace in Kyoto. No one’s ever seen the imperial banner before, though they’ve read about it in ancient war chronicles.

Then the soldiers see the imperial chrysanthemum and realise what it is. It means that the Satsuma are now the imperial forces. Until now the shogunate have been the legitimate government and the southerners have been the rebels. Now the Satsuma are the legitimate representatives of the emperor while the shogunate’s troops are traitors.

The Satsuma break into a cheer. The shogunate’s troops are utterly disheartened. They fight on, but half-heartedly.

The last thing the shogun wants is to go down in history as a traitor to the emperor. He abandons Osaka Castle where he’s been directing the battle, abandons his troops, takes refuge on a ship and sails back to Edo.

The red and white pennant was a forgery – but a forgery that changed the course of history.

Shogun Yoshinobu leaving for Edo, as depicted by Yoshitoshi (1839 - 1892)

Shogun Yoshinobu leaving for Edo, as depicted by Yoshitoshi (1839 – 1892)
[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

For a dramatic telling of the events of this momentous story, see The Shogun’s Queen and the other three novels of The Shogun Quartet.

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Travelling as research

Friday, 1 December, 2017· Last Updated on: Wednesday, 29 November, 2017

in Blog

Ibusuki was a beautiful place, a land of gold and sunshine where the sky and ocean were perpetually blue. Cranes swooped, birds twittered, monkeys roamed the flower-clad hills, palm trees swayed and the purple cone of Mount Kaimon, more perfect than Mount Fuji, rose misty on the horizon …

The Shogun’s Queen

The magnificent gate of Nijo Castle in Kyoto

The magnificent gate of Nijo Castle in Kyoto

For me researching a book always involves travel. Even when I’m writing fiction the sense of place is always crucial, perhaps because I began by writing travel books and am still a travel writer – or perhaps it’s that I just love travel.

Each book in The Shogun Quartet has taken me to very extraordinary, seldom visited, unexplored corners of Japan and enabled me to unearth different aspects of its history. The Last Concubine took me to the Nakasendo, the Inner Mountain Way that winds along the valleys of central Japan, and to Mount Akagi, where the shogun’s lost gold is said to be buried. (And no, I didn’t find it). For The Courtesan and the Samurai I went to Hakodate, on Japan’s northernmost island, Hokkaido, and got covered head to foot in snow while visiting the sites where the last great battle of Japan’s civil war was fought. I also fell in love with Victorian-era sail and steam ships. And The Samurai’s Daughter took me to the northern city of Aizu Wakamatsu very near Fukushima, not long after the terrible earthquake and tsunami.

My latest novel and the prequel to The Last Concubine, The Shogun’s Queen, is based very closely on fact. Princess Atsu’s story is so powerful I really wanted to bring her and the places which she knew alive.

Ibusuki with Mount Kaimon rising behind
By 名古屋太郎 (Own work PENTAX K10D + smc PENTAX-A 1:1.2 50mm) [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

Atsu grew up in the idyllic seaside and spa resort of Ibusuki and spent the first seventeen years of her life there. It’s a glorious tropical resort at the far tip of the southern island of Kyushu. Not far away you can see Mount Kaimon, a fairy-tale cone-shaped mountain even more perfect than Mount Fuji. People go there for their health, but instead of taking the waters you’re buried in hot black mineral sands. You put on a cotton gown called a yukata and lie in a trench with a little pillow to support your head while grizzled old men shovel hot sand over you till you’re completely buried apart from your face. The sand is surprisingly heavy and hot, like a blanket, and incredibly good for you, or so they tell me.

Lying on the beach, gazing at the ocean and the palm trees, I got some feeling of this beautiful place where Atsu spent her childhood and expected to live her whole life. But fate had other plans for her.

Sakurajima volcano belching black ash

Sakurajima volcano belching black ash

Lord Nariakira’s summer villa with Sakura

Lord Nariakira’s summer villa with Sakura

At the age of seventeen she was summoned to Kagoshima, the capital of the province. As a princess she travelled by palanquin, carried on the shoulders of muscular bearers, accompanied by thousands of colourfully dressed retainers and guards and samurai and porters in a procession as vast as when the Queen travels.

Kagoshima is another tropical paradise. The great volcanic cone of Sakurajima looms over the city and the bay, perpetually belching black ash. You can see the fire spouting out of the crater at night. The town is dusted with ash and gritty underfoot and on some days you have to carry an umbrella; and occasionally the volcano erupts.

I stayed in a hot spring resort right on its slopes. These days most spa resorts have separate baths for men and women, ever since prudish Victorian travellers arrived to spoil the fun, but this one is mixed. I wore a white cotton yukata and reclined up to my neck in hot mineral waters, gazing at the sea and the sky.

Atsu was taken to live in Kagoshima Castle, the seat of her uncle, Lord Nariakira. The moat and building and vast grounds are still there directly under the lea of the hill, as are the exquisite gardens and delicate wooden tracery of his summer villa across the bay from the volcano.

Palanquins were small, cramped, hot in summer and cold in winter

Palanquins were small, cramped, hot in summer and cold in winter

From there Atsu travelled by palanquin across Kyushu to the main island, Honshu, and along what was the main highway in those days. The whole journey took her six weeks. By bullet train it took me a day.

When she finally reached Edo, now Tokyo, she travelled in a grand procession through the streets of the vast city to Edo Castle. There she entered the Women’s Palace – a harem of three thousand women, where the only man who could enter was the shogun.

Edo Castle has long since disappeared taking with it all traces of the Women’s Palace. I visited Nijo Castle in Kyoto and spent a long time in the Women’s Palace there. While the walls of the men’s palace are covered with lavish designs of pine trees and tigers painted on gold leaf screens, the women’s palace is much more restrained and tranquil in decor, with sliding doors etched with delicate ink paintings of Chinese landscapes. I walked in stocking feet around the long dark corridors past the heavy wooden pillars and beams and tried to imagine myself back to that world of women.

A version of this article was first published in Bettina Hartas Geary’s www.tripfiction.com

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A hidden world: Among the sophisticated geisha of Tokyo

17 November 2017
Thumbnail image for A hidden world: Among the sophisticated geisha of Tokyo

When Atsu was a child her father had many geisha concubines and there were always geisha around the house. She called them all indiscriminately ‘Auntie.’ Her favourite was Wife Number Two, an earthy woman with a loud laugh and big personality, competent and unshakeable, very different from Atsu’s refined mother, Wife Number One. Wife Number […]

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Ghosts, demons, fox spirits and pots and pans that torment you in the night

3 November 2017
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Atsu saw looming faces and felt cobwebby fingers brushing against her skin. She felt the wind of spirits rushing by and heard a roar like the crashing of waves on the beach. It was the cries and moans of all the babies who’d died here, not just babies but women, the maids who’d thrown themselves […]

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When Love was the Forbidden Fruit

20 October 2017
When Love was the Forbidden Fruit

“He turned away into the darkness and she heard his voice above the ripple and roar of the waves. ‘Okatsu-san, Okatsu-san. Don’t forget me.’ She gave a sob and closed her fingers around the hilt of the dagger and said softly, ‘I won’t, I swear it. I won’t.’” The Shogun’s Queen How do you fall […]

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Living with the Geisha of Kyoto – The Inside Story

6 October 2017
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Dark alleys wound between wooden houses with lanterns hanging outside, no doubt tea houses where geiko, the famous geisha of Miyako, entertained. Women in exquisite kimonos clattered by on high clogs, long sleeves swinging. Atsu listened for the tinkle of a shamisen plucking out a plaintive melody. She caught the scent of incense on the […]

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The Once and Future City – A Visit to Edo, Modern-Day Tokyo

21 September 2017
The Once and Future City – A Visit to Edo, Modern-Day Tokyo

To her Edo was a magical place, a city of dreams where brilliant men and beautiful women lived. She gazed transfixed at the map with the perfect cone of Mount Fuji, mystical and beautiful, etched above the network of streets. Together they traced the maze of canals that wound round and round like a snail’s […]

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Edo Castle – Japan’s Versailles

15 September 2017
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Edo Castle was like Louis XIV’s Versailles, a place of fabulous riches, of unimaginable beauty and luxury. Its mammoth granite battlements and gleaming roofs towered above the great city of Edo, the largest city in the world – which we now call Tokyo.

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Concubines, Geisha and Me – Living as a Woman in Japan

8 September 2017
Concubines, Geisha and Me

Atsu smelt kyara and sandalwood, musk and ambergris mingled with camphor and a dank mustiness. Glistening heads with black hair coiled into glossy loops stretched into the gloom. There were several hundred women on their knees but the room was totally silent. The Shogun’s Queen In Japan until recently men and women led very separate […]

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A True Japanese Ghost Story

4 September 2017
Lantern ghost

When Atsu started to drift off she saw looming faces and felt cobwebby fingers brushing against her skin. She felt the wind of spirits rushing by and a roar like the crashing of waves on the beach. It was the cries and moans of all the babies who’d died here. The Shogun’s Queen The Women’s […]

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