Table Speech

“Episodes from the “Turning Point in History””

December 9, 2009

Mr. Sadatomo Matsudaira
Executive Announcer
Office Matsudaira

 Let me start my speech by sharing with you the story about my wife. Her grandfather, Kisoji Fukushima, was the first Japanese Rotarian who was advised to establish the Rotary Club in Japan from the then President in the US. As he was obliged to stay in the States and was still young, he asked Mr. Umekichi Yoneyama to become the President. In Arita, Saga Prefecture, Fukushima’s hometown, stands a monument which honors his achievements, with the engraving of “birthplace of Japanese Rotary Club.” Today I am honored to make a speech at the Rotary club, with which I have a long and close personal relationship.

 The theme of my speech today centers on history and historical documents, and relates to a TV program for which I was in charge called “Turning Point in History”.

 As we live in the “present time,” we can only know the “results” of historical events, whereas, we can never witness the “actual site.” Nobody knows the true historical background leading to a certain incident. Here, the “historical documents” fill in the “gap.” Yet, we must note that these “historical documents” are not always correct.

 History is often accounted by the winners, while those defeated are erased from the center stage of history. Only the winners are allowed to claim their legitimacy and hand it down through generations. Documents like “family tree” glorify the “heroic episode” of one’s family leaders, which are up-graded through fictitious episodes added by writers of later generations. It is dangerous to presume the “historical development of events,” based on blind acceptance of these documents as golden rules without questioning their validity. Victory and defeat are in the lap of the gods. Losers must have had their points to make, just as winners did. Winners had their justice, so did the losers. This rational attitude ensures fair interpretation on history.

 Let me give you a couple of concrete examples. I am sure you learnt that “the Soga Family was very ambitious, trying to exercise power over the emperor.” Yet, studies on ancient foundations discovered later showed contradicting facts. In sum, the “tyrannical Soga Family” theory could have been the necessary propaganda for the succeeding Fujiwara family to flourish in the Heian era. Likewise, the “Ieyasu or Tokugawa historical view” stigmatized the opponent Mitsunari Ishida at the Battle of Sekigahara as an “arrogant and cruel bailiff.” Kouzukenosuke Oguri, vassal of the closing days of the Tokugawa shogunate and the leader of Japanese modernization, was falsely accused as the “master thief hiding gold bullion and traitor selling Japan to France.” This must be because the new Meiji government needed a scapegoat to publicize widely the “evil side of the Tokugawa government.”

 Mr. Kazutoshi Hando, an authority on Showa history, recently published “End of Edo Period” which objects to the historical view of judging the “Satsuma-Choshu Alliance” as justice. He raises questions on the legitimacy of successive wars inflicted at the dawn of a new era. Why did the new governmental forces kill so many people in Toba-Fushimi, Aizu etc. by a series of wars, while Yoshinobu Tokugawa, the last Shogun, returned political power to the Emperor and agreed to move out of Edo to Shizuoka? What was their justification? Wasn’t it because they wanted to assume the hegemony and rise to a high status in the new national structure? Mr. Hando intended to emphasize the despotism of “Satsuma-Choshu Alliance” in his publication.

 It goes without saying that we, the readers of “historical documents,” should try to interpret them rationally, and avoid being misled by the “convenient interpretation presented by the establishment.”

 Now, let me share with you an episode on Ryoma Sakamoto, the main character of the upcoming NHK’s TV drama series, “The Life of Ryoma.” Ryoma is a very popular figure throughout Japan today, but he was hardly known during the Meiji Era, the fast-moving time with dizzying changes. On February 6, 1904, Japan broke diplomatic relations with Russia. Many Japanese were scared to be defeated by a major power like Russia. That night, a man dressed in white appeared in Empress Shoken’s dream. The man called himself Ryoma Sakamoto and told her that the Japanese navy would lead Japan to a dramatic victory in the war against Russia. The following night, the man appeared again in her dream. In the morning, the Empress told what happened to the attendant, who reported to his boss Mitsuaki Tanaka. Ryoma was from Tosa, so was Tanaka, and they happened to know each other. Tanaka showed the Empress the picture of Ryoma and she identified Ryoma to be the man in her dreams. This became a newspaper article just when the Japanese navy defeated the Russian Baltic Fleet, thus making Ryoma a nation-wide hero.

 Regardless of what is accounted in historical documents or people themselves claim, the truth remains hidden out of sight. The reverse is also true, and ignoring possible events only because they are undocumented could undermine the historical perspective. Some “simple facts” might have been undocumented, simply because they were too obvious to take the trouble to be documented. It is both wrong to judge what is written in historical documents as “real facts” and what is not written as “nothing.” I try to keep an open-minded stance when I read “historical documents” to get closer to the truth.