Table Speech

Inner Strength and Beauty of the Japanese Women, seen in Yae no Sakura and Gegege no Nyobo.

April 10, 2013

Ms. Keiko Igarashi

 Yae no Sakura tells the story of Yae Yamamoto, born in the Aizu clan during the late Edo period. She is called “Joan of Arc” of Japan or “handsome woman.” Yae was born in 1845, the time when Japan was undergoing drastic internal and external changes. Encroachment by the major Western powers to the East culminated in the Opium War in 1840. The sudden arrival of the black ships led by Commodore Perry impelled Japan to conclude the Japan-US Treaty of Peace and Amity in 1854 and to open the ports at Shimoda and Hakodate. The domestic situation was also turbulent. The Sakuradamon Incident (assassination of the Chief Minister Ii Naosuke) in 1860 marked the dramatic downfall of the authority and power of the Tokugawa shogunate.

 The Aizu clan had long served as a check against the Ohu (northeastern Japan) powers. It became the official shinpan daimyo (relatives of the Tokugawa shoguns) during the early Edo period, with Masayuki Matsudaira appointed the feudal lord. The Matsudaira family remained prominent in shogunate affairs. In the family rules of the Matsudairas, there was a specific injunction to “be loyal to your master Shogun anytime” with wholehearted devotion. The clan was administered with a unique policy that put education at the top of its agenda to foster future clan officials. Children were encouraged to respect their elders, help the young and the weak and to have polite attitudes. All sons of the high-ranking samurais who turned 10 years old were sent to Nisshinkan, an official school of the Aizu clan which provided a comprehensive curriculum on both academics and martial arts.

 Against such backdrop, Yae was born to the Yamamoto family that served as Aizu clan’s official gunnery instructor. She received a great influence from her elder brother, Kakuma, who was a knowledgeable man skilled in martial arts. When Yae turned 21, she got married to Shonosuke Kawasaki who showed an excellent capacity in the studies of Western sciences and gunnery.

 In the turbulent age of the 1860s, Aizu started to head towards the tragic path of destruction. The Satsuma clan and Choshu clan were gaining power to overthrow the shogunate and the Tokugawa era was drawing to an end. Tokugawa and Aizu came to be regarded as enemies of the Emperor and the Boshin Civil War broke out in Kyoto in 1868. It was fought between forces of the ruling Tokugawa Shogunate against the Imperial troops that sought return of political power to the imperial court.

 The Imperial troops continued to progress northward, and the Aizu clan got cornered. On August 23, 1868, the Byakkotai (White Tiger Corps), consisted of teenage boys, committed tragic mass suicide. Also 233 Aizu women killed themselves on the same day, as they preferred death to dishonor. The Aizu clan finally surrendered a month later on September 22. In the aftermath of the tragic defeat, Yae got a divorce from Shonosuke for unknown reasons.

 Three years later in 1871, Yae moved to Kyoto together with her mother and niece to join her brother Kakuma. He had been taken into custody in Kyoto by the Satsuma forces during the Boshin War, got pardoned after the war and was promoted to serve the prefectural assembly of Kyoto. Her move to Kyoto marked Yae’s second stage of life, where she met her second husband Joe Niijima.

 Joe had started reading extensively on Dutch and western learning at the age of 13. Determined to further study western sciences and Christianity, he smuggled himself into a merchant vessel and left for the US. He got baptized in Boston and became the first Japanese to receive a degree from a western university. Joe returned to Japan with a vision to start a Christian school and established Doshisha English School in 1875. He worked with Kakuma Yamamoto, Yae’s brother, who was also active with the local Christian community in Kyoto. Yae got married to Jyo in 1876 and assisted him both personally and professionally towards establishing Doshisha Women’s College and Doshisha Hospital. Joe passed away at the young age of 48, followed by Kakuma two years later.

 Yae started her third stage of life and devoted herself to social welfare activities. She joined the Japan Red Cross Society, while she taught younger students at a nursing school. She also served as a nurse during the Sino-Japanese War and Russo-Japanese War.

 Looking into the life story of Yae, I am deeply impressed by the potential strength of human nature. I am also surprised to find so many brave people who rose to the occasion with determination to build a better world. The people of Aizu did their utmost “selflessly” displaying mental strength based on “loyalty.” They fought at all costs to save what was precious for them, and thus upon defeat, they chose to live a new life with a resolute and gallant attitude.

 You might wonder about the common trait that underlies Yae and Mrs. Nunoe Mizuki, the wife of a manga (comic) writer Shigeru Mizuki, well-known for his Gegege no Kitaro. Nunoe got married to Shigeru only five days after the arranged meeting and started her newlywed life in dire poverty. Yet she has always done her best, both in good times and bad times, without feeling subservient or boastful. Nunoe is generous, flexible and determined, just like Yae. Both women had flexible strength and dedicated their lives to serving others. Nunoe found her place at home, while Yae worked for the betterment of society.

 I believe Japanese women are endowed with inner strength to face our destiny in patience, nobleness and integrity. We must also note that behind these talented women were “handsome” Japanese men who encouraged them to flower into their true potential. I hope the life story of Yae makes you feel the flexible strength and beauty we Japanese are blessed with. I believe we can overcome every hardship, with a feeling of hope towards a brighter future.