Author and Journalist

Lecture dates 2018

Monday, 9 October, 2017· Last Updated on: Monday, 5 February, 2018

in Events

The Shogun's QueenThe Shogun’s Queen

Forthcoming lectures:

Tuesday February 20th
6.00 – 8.00 pm

David Hume Tower,
Lecture Theatre B,
University of Edinburgh

THE SHOGUN’S HAREM: LIFE IN THE WOMEN’S PALACE IN NINETEENTH CENTURY JAPAN: illustrated talk

More details: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/the-shoguns-harem-a-talk-by-lesley-downer-tickets-42846944364

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Wednesday February 21st
6.00 – 7.00 pm

Lecture Theatre B4,
Cottrell Building
,
University of Stirling, FK9 4LA

THE SHOGUN’S HAREM: LIFE IN THE WOMEN’S PALACE IN NINETEENTH CENTURY JAPAN: illustrated talk

More detailshttps://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/japan-week-the-shoguns-harem-life-in-the-womens-palace-in-nineteenth-century-japan-tickets-42117991045

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Mutsuhito, The Meiji Emperor

The young Meiji emperor in military dress, by Uchida Kuichi in 1873. [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

2018: 150th Anniversary of the Meiji Restoration
‘When East and West Collided’

Forthcoming lectures:

Friday November 23rd
1.00 – 2.00 pm

Department of Eastern Art, Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology
University of Oxford, Beaumont Street, Oxford OX1 2PH
www.ashmolean.org

2018: 150th ANNIVERSARY OF THE MEIJI RESTORATION: ‘WHEN EAST AND WEST COLLIDED’: illustrated talk

Details to follow

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More to come! Watch this space!

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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

1 December 2017
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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 For me researching […]

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A hidden world: Among the sophisticated geisha of Tokyo

17 November 2017
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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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A Date for Your Diary: Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation on November 9th

9 October 2017
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Thursday 9 November at 6.00pm Daiwa Foundation Japan House 13/14 Cornwall Terrace, Outer Circle London NW1 4QP MAP Nearest station: Baker Street Admission free, booking essential Turning Point: The Momentous Events that Created Modern Japan To Japan, the arrival of Commodore Perry and his Black Ships in 1853 was almost as shocking as if Martians had landed. One of […]

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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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