Category Archives: History

Manga in History Exhibition at Kyoto International Manga Museum

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Yesterday, Mewby and I went to see the “Great Manga History Traces from Edo” exhibition at Kyoto International Manga Museum. This is a fascinating exhibition whether you are interested in the early development of manga, or of its role in social history. Manga has a long history as a satirical tool, used broadly to mock social and political trends. The museum displays a great number of original materials to show manga’s development from playful sketches intended purely to amuse, to works of more serious intent, such as the battle scenes that satirized opposing forces during the Boshin War. And happily everything is clearly explained in English as well as Japanese – just as you would expect from this “International” museum!

Here are just two pictures that caught my eye yesterday among the many on show.

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Sequel to “oshinpan moji-e sugata” – Nagahide, 1840s.

Above is an example of moji-e or “letter pictures”, in which hiragana characters are playfully used in pictures. For example the cat or ねこ (neko) in the third picture from the right clearly employs the character ね.

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“Ryuko sannin namayoi” – Three tipsy people nowadays by an unknown artist, 1855.

This picture satirizes society after the Great Ansei Earthquake, a major disaster in Edo (now Tokyo) in 1855. The geisha is grieving over her lost customers. The merchant on the left is an angry drunk because he has lost so much business. However, the construction worker in the middle is laughing at the money to be made in the coming reconstruction. Some things don’t change…

Mewby at the exibition.

Mewby at the exibition.

While photography is generally not permitted inside the Manga Museum, it is permitted in some sections of this exhibition.

Great Manga History Traces from Edo continues until February 7th (Sunday).

The International Manga Museum is open 10:00 – 18:00 (Last entry at 17:50). It is located a 5 minute walk from Karasuma Oike Subway Station. Here is a map.

Entry for adults is 800 yen, for middle school students (12-15) 300 yen and elementary school students (under 12) 100 yen. Entry entitles you to view all the exhibits in the museum. Visit the website to find out more:

See also:
Introduction to Kyoto International Manga Museum
Seika University Manga Faculty Article in Morning Calm Magazine

Exploring Fushimi on Inside Kyoto

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My latest article for Inside Kyoto is an exploration of the backstreets and waterways of Fushimi – Kyoto’s famed sake making district. Included in the article are places to taste sake, a boating cruise, a visit to the Teradaya Inn (where Sakamoto Ryoma narrowly escaped assassination), and a Buddhist temple dedicated to a Hindu river deity that happens to have a Hidden Christian lantern!

Here’s a taste,

Fushimi. Say it aloud and the very sound of those soft syllables seems refreshing. This is not inappropriate. The name originally meant “underground water”, and Fushimi is famous for its springs. The water from these underground sources is soft, mellow and is held to be particularly delicious – perfect for sake production. Many sake breweries thrive in this area and Fushimi sake is renowned as the perfect complement for Kyoto cuisine. Historically the waters of Fushimi also made this area an important hub of transport and trade. Here the confluence of three rivers, the Uji, Katsura and Kamo, and an intricate network of canals were put to good use, sending rice, sake and other goods between the cities of Kyoto and Osaka…

Read more here: Exploring Fushimi – Kyoto’s Sake District

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See also:
Kabuki At Kyoto’s Minamiza Theater
Walking In Gion
Kyoto Samurai
Toka Ebisu

The Heiji Monogatari Emaki – Interactive Scroll Now Online

“Few paintings of the period capture the force, confusion, and terror of battle as effectively as does the episode of the burning of the Sanjō Palace in the Heiji monogatari emaki.” – The Encyclopaedia Britannica

Sanjō Palace in flames - a detail from the Heiji Monogatari interactive scrolls from Bowdoin College

Sanjō Palace in flames – a detail from the Heiji Monogatari interactive scrolls from Bowdoin College

One night in January 1160, a band of 500 men stormed the retired Emperor Go-Shirakawa’s palace at Sanjō, took the former emperor captive, killed most of his staff and set the palace ablaze. Go-Shirakawa was carried off to join his son, the reigning Emperor Nijō, who was being held prisoner at The Great Palace. Meanwhile the rebels continued to eliminate their enemies. The coup was brief, effective and bloody.

Soldiers blockaded the [Sanjō] Palace on all four sides and set fire to it. Those who fled out they shot or hacked to death. Many jumped into the wells, hoping that they might save themselves. The ladies-in-waiting of high and low rank and the girls of the women’s quarters, running out screaming and shouting, fell and lay prostrate, stepped on by the horses and trampled by the men. It was more than terrible. No one knows the number of persons who lost their lives. – From “The Burning of the Sanjo Palace” translated by Reischauer & Yamagiwa

Kyoto, in the 12th century, was the setting for an intense power struggle between two samurai clans: the Minamoto and the Taira. The leaders of these clans, Minamoto no Yoshitomo, and Taira no Kiyomori, had once been allies in putting down an earlier rebellion, but a bitter rivalry had developed between them. When Taira no Kiyomori left the capital on a pilgrimage, Minamoto no Yoshitomo saw his chance to seize power, and launched his attack on the Sanjō Palace. Ultimately however, the Taira would return and exact their revenge…

This, in short, is the history of the Heiji Rebellion, a brief civil war that resulted in Taira no Kiyomori’s victory over Yoshitomo and the establishment of Japan’s first samurai led government. History buffs and art lovers alike will be delighted to learn that Bowdoin College has now put online the illustrated 13th century Heiji Monogatari scrolls which depict these events, and in a fully interactive format.

From the Bowdoin website:

“A Night Attack on the Sanjo Palace” provides an excellent introduction to the genre of picture scrolls. The scrolls read from right to left, and all action flows to the left. A few people hurrying flow into a confused throng of warriors and nobles, epitomized by a wayward bystander being crushed by an ox cart. Out of the confusion, attention shifts to the palace, where Fujiwara Nobuyori can be seen ordering the retired emperor into the cart. Wisps of smoke appear, leading to a conflagration at the palace, with hapless supporters of the Taira being killed, and women of the palace attempting, with mixed success, to flee. Gradually order is restored, and a band of warriors, including Fujiwara Nobuyori and his co-conspirator, Minamoto Yoshitomo, surround Go-Shirakawa’s cart in a triumphant procession.


A detail from the Bowdoin College interactive scroll.

The scroll itself is beautiful. The commentary buttons that explain both the narrative flow and specific images are very helpful. There is also a translation button for the opening portion of the scroll, (quoted above) which introduces the unfolding events. The Bowdoin College site is a great learning tool and a fantastic introduction to this dramatic episode in Kyoto’s history.

You can find it here:
The Heiji Scroll
The Interactive Scroll Viewer

Donald Keene on Kyoto: Then & Now

Donald Keene at his Tokyo home in October 2002. Picture by Aurelio Asiain. Taken from Wikipedia under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

Donald Keene at his Tokyo home in October 2002. Picture by Aurelio Asiain. Taken from Wikipedia under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

On New Year’s Day the Japan Times published a wonderful article by the renowned Japanese scholar Donald Keene, reflecting on the changes he has seen in Japan over the past 70 years. In a fascinating account he tells of life in the immediate post-war years and after; a time of much hardship, but also, a golden age in modern Japanese literature and arts. In particular though, it was his experiences as a student in early 1950’s Kyoto that grabbed my attention. Professor  Keene painted a picture of a city far different from the one I know. Unlike other Japanese cities, Kyoto had been spared the ravages of wartime aerial bombardment, and the modern development that was to irrevocably change the cityscape was yet to come. How incredibly beautiful it must have been then! And what a thrill to roam through those perfectly preserved streets!

I enjoyed wandering at random in the city, fascinated by the names of places I knew from works of Japanese literature and history. The streets were surprisingly quiet, probably because at the time there were no privately owned cars in Kyoto, only company vehicles. I was delighted one day when I saw two elderly ladies happening to meet while crossing in the middle of Kawaramachi, the busiest street in the city. They politely removed their haori jackets and bowed to each other, not in the least worried by possible traffic. Of course, not everything in Kyoto was so pleasing. I saw slum areas not only around the railway station but in the middle of the city, and there were many boys eager to polish one’s shoes. But I managed to accept these sad results of the long warfare that the Japanese had suffered.

I was captivated not only by the city, but the surroundings and I visited every temple on the tourist map. I enjoyed walking along streets with rows of shops, all selling the same article, whether bamboo baskets, stone badgers, or dusty secondhand books. Most of these shops no longer exist, victims of progress.

Indeed the nostalgia is tinged with sadness. Though Professor Keene concedes that people in Kyoto now live far more comfortable lives than they did 60 years ago,  he still laments the changes he has seen, and continues to see in the urban landscape.

I do miss Kyoto as it was when I first arrived in the city.

The beautiful houses in Gion grow fewer each year and will never be replaced. The side streets lined with Japanese-style houses are either mixed with dreary apartments or totally destroyed. Kyoto streets on a Sunday are now jammed with cars. No old lady is advised to cross a street without caution. Greed and a demand for convenience have taken the place of beauty…

Oh to have a time machine! I often wonder how Kyoto residents of 60 or even 50  or 40 years ago would feel if they were to pay a visit to 21st century Kyoto and witness the changes that time and rampant development have wrought. Would they marvel at our modern comforts and conveniences, and envy our lifestyle in this age of consumption? Or would they mourn the loss of the city’s former grace, and bewail the loss of local community traditions?

Perhaps they would do both.

To imagine a better future, we must look to the past. Each day, here in Fushimi, I look out my window at a parking lot, where but 30 years ago there stood a beautiful house and garden designed by the legendary architect William Vories. Once it was the pride of the family who had it built, but their descendants decided to pull it down because it made more economic sense. To go to my local supermarket I cross a canal once lined completely with cherry trees. Only a few trees now remain, most having been ripped up to make way for profitable housing. Probably, only a few people locally remember these things, and doubtless most local residents familiar with the town as it is now, would be amazed if they knew what has been lost. That’s why it is important to preserve these memories. If it was possible then, to plan and build with forethought for community and a pleasing environment, why shouldn’t it be possible now?

Looking ahead I do fervently hope that one day, both local and national government put into place policies and planning regulations that allow us to enjoy the best of old world beauty and a modern agreeable lifestyle. To dream of such a future might seem idealistic, but it’s far from impossible. Just look at this.

To read the full article by Professor Keene please visit the Japan Times website here: Donald Keene reflects on 70-year Japan experience

See also: Two Views from Yasaka Shrine Separated by Time.

Deep Nara #1 – Kojiki Exhibition

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Last month Mewby and I went down to Nara and took in the Kojiki exhibition currently ongoing at Nara Prefectural Art Museum. I would happily recommend the exhibition as a fascinating and comprehensive exploration of every aspect of Japan’s oldest book. Whether, you are interested in the deepest roots of Japanese culture, ancient mythology and the glorious art it has inspired, or in the very dodgy political interpretations that have attached themselves to the book, it’s all there for you in the Kojiki exhibition. I wrote a bit about it for John Dougill’s Green Shinto blog, and he was kind enough to post my review today.

八岐大蛇退治図 鈴木松年 - Susanoo slays the eight headed dragon. Suzuki Shonen, 1871.

八岐大蛇退治図 鈴木松年 – Susanoo slays the eight headed dragon. Suzuki Shonen, 1871.

The Kojiki or Record of Ancient Matters is a collection of myths detailing the creation of the Japanese archipelago, along with stories of the first Gods, heroes and emperors. Compiled in 712 it is the oldest book in Japanese. It is also notoriously difficult to read, even in translation. The exhibition’s own stated aim is to overcome this difficulty and help the visitor to look beyond the text’s ancient language and obscure cosmological convictions, to the lives and emotions of the people from whose culture these legends sprang. To do this they have gathered art and archaeological materials from city museums and private locations across Japan that provide a thoroughly immersive Kojiki experience. The result is a comprehensive overview of this book’s place in Japan’s cultural history. We spent a good afternoon at the exhibition learning that the text of the Kojiki, and its mythological contents, have been not only a rich source of creative inspiration, but also historically of propaganda and political influence. In both regards it is a fascinating story!

You can read the rest of this article here:

The good news is that the Kojiki exhibition is FREE for foreigners, but you’d better be quick as it finishes on December 14th. You can find more details in Japanese and a map to the Museum are here:

See also: Songs and Stories of the Kojiki retold by Yoko Danno

Ted Taylor on the Trail of Toyotomi Hideyoshi: A Deep Kyoto Walk through History

Ted Taylor wrote a piece for The Japan Times at the end of March that illustrates quite nicely why I asked him to be my coeditor on the Deep Kyoto: Walks anthology. As regular readers of his blog Notes from the ‘Nog will attest, Ted knows very well how to write about walking. In this article, Under the Beat of the Taiko, Ted walks about and discusses various sites around Kyoto associated with Japan’s second great unifier, the daimyo Toyotomi Hideyoshi.

It is worth noting however, that this walk, written specifically for the Japan Times Travel section and focused as it is very much on Kyoto’s past, is very different in style and content from the content of our book. In Deep Kyoto: Walks our writers were encouraged to focus more on the present moment and the web of associations that a wander down familiar paths gives rise to. Each piece in our anthology is a meditative testament to life lived in Kyoto and maps out those places where the greater story of the city and our personal histories intersect. The following excerpt from Ted’s article though, is still a striking reminder of how much a part Kyoto has played in Japan’s greater history and how much of that history remains to be explored in this our modern city.


Mimizuka:  a monument to Hideyoshi’s infamy... (Photo by Ted Taylor)

Mimizuka: a monument to Hideyoshi’s infamy… (Photo by Ted Taylor)

From Under the Beat of the Taiko
…the majority of sites related to Hideyoshi lie across town, not far away from the Kyoto National Museum. I started in fact from that very building, tracing a short counter-clockwise arc on a sunny but cold winter’s morning. I quickly head east, crossing the broad Higashi-oji and cutting through the grounds of Chisahaku-in. This temple offers one of my favorite tofu lunches, but it is still early. Beyond the temple is Shin Hiyoshi Jingu.

Today, the grounds of the shrine are somewhat hemmed in, but the layout hints at a grander scale in the past. I find a monkey statue, a reminder of Hideyoshi’s nickname when he was still a low-ranking soldier. There is also a photograph of an early Meiji Period cannon that had presumably been used in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05). The limited signage doesn’t mention where the cannon itself is today, but it’s likely to have been melted down during World War II a half century later. Acorns litter the base where it once stood.

I pass Kyoto Women’s University and its accompanying cafes. On one corner is a beautiful Meiji-era building that is a nod to the antebellum American South and is apparently the University’s Founders Hall. A set of steps takes me above it, onto a vast open space of trees and stone. Off to one side is a large paved section where the Princess Line parks its red buses. It’s a point not entirely incongruous as Hideyoshi once had the audacity to demand that the Ming Emperor marry a daughter to the Japanese monarch, a demand that was naturally ignored.

There’s a steep flight of steps before me, leading up Amida-ga-mine. I begin to climb up the not insignificant number of stairs — 522, I later find. Atop the mount is Hideyoshi’s mausoleum. After his death in August 1598, he was buried here, within a massive shrine complex. A massive annual festival was once held here around the date of his death but after the victory of the Tokugawa over Hideyoshi’s son in 1615, the shrine was destroyed and the number of mourners quickly diminished.

Today, too, I find myself alone. There is a small pagoda, built in 1898 to mark the 300th year of his passing. It is of simple grey concrete, far from the gaudy glitz that the man himself was known to appreciate. Instead, the simplicity of the monument, along with the bare trees and the accompanying cold wind, is a reminder of the poverty into which the man had been born.

I circumambulate this plain stone edifice. If you squint through the trees to the north, you might be able to make out the sightseers standing on the famed deck of Kiyomizu-dera. Behind the mausoleum are a series of trails running in a number of directions.

However, I return the way I came, in the direction of Hoko-ji Temple. Just to the east is a small park with a handful of structures and a great deal of cracked tile. It was here that Hideyoshi built his massive Buddha to rival that of Nara. Eighteen meters high, the Buddha’s fortunes lasted longer than that of the Toyotomi family, though these fortunes could hardly be called good.

Repeatedly destroyed by fire and earthquake, the Buddha would be rebuilt again, in a near parody of that ancient Zen proverb: “Fall seven times and stand up eight.” However, the great statue fell for good in 1973, destroyed by fire. (This finality is so seemingly complete for I can’t even find a photo on the Internet, despite the recent date of demise.)

The temple itself is pretty small and nondescript. The shinbutsu bunri, or separation of Buddhism from Shinto in the opening days of the Meiji Period, allowed the grounds of neighboring Toyotomi Shrine to envelop what had once belonged to the temple. The only truly interesting feature is an old bell, which was cast in 1614. As Richard A.B. Ponsonby-Fane wrote in his 1956 masterpiece, “Kyoto: the Old Capital of Japan”:

“[T]he tablet over the Daibatsu-den and the bell bore the inscription ‘Kokka ankō’ (meaning ‘the country and the house, peace and tranquility’), and at this Tokugawa Ieyasu affected to take umbrage, alleging that it was intended as a curse on him for the character 安 (an, ‘peace’) was placed between the two characters composing his own name 家康 (ka-kō, ‘house tranquility’) [suggesting subtly perhaps that peace could only be attained by Ieyasu’s dismemberment?]“

This perceived slight gave Ieyasu yet another pretext for which to dismember the Toyotomi clan itself.

The neighboring shrine, Toyokuni Jinja, was built in 1599 and dedicated to Hideyoshi. This honor was, of course, revoked under the Tokugawa, but once again renewed by the Meiji Emperor himself. The Karamon, an ornately carved gate that has been designated a national treasure, unfortunately flanks a built-up ground that seems to function solely as a parking lot. I find no real reason to linger.

Around the corner is one final site that is more a monument to Hideyoshi’s infamy. Beneath the gently sloping grass hill of Mimizuka are the severed noses of allegedly 38,000 Korean soldiers and civilians killed during Hideyoshi’s ill-advised invasions of Korea (1592-98). Remuneration was usually paid to warriors according to the number of heads taken in battle, but as this campaign took place such a long distance away, noses seemed a fair substitute. Dedicated in 1597, it is most telling that the information written on the plaque is in Japanese and Korean. The mound is unknown to most Japanese, but Korean tour buses can be frequently seen nearby.

As I walk back toward the subway, I wonder at the thoughts of the locals, living in modest suburban houses around the Mimizuka site. However, as these modern homes themselves attest, despite the rich legacy of this city, most Kyoto-ites don’t really seem to live much in harmony with the past anymore, and seem content to instead give it a curt nod as they move forward with their lives.

Read the full article here.


By some uncanny chance the Hailstone Haiku Circle‘s most recent composition stroll also took in the mausoleum of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and you can read about that here. The Deep Kyoto: Walks connection? Hailstone participants Stephen Gill and John Dougill are both contributors to our book! From this posting though, it is the following haiku by Branko Manojlovic, that I find most poignant:

Hideyoshi’s tomb –
Nobody sweeps here
But the April wind

More about the writers of Deep Kyoto: Walks to be revealed soon!
See also:
Judith Clancy in “Deep Kyoto: Walks” ~ An Exclusive Extract
Deep Kyoto: Walks ~ Meet the Artists
Coming very soon, the first publication from Deep Kyoto