04 December 2021

Educating Japan's Crown Prince, 1859

From Emperor of Japan: Meiji and His World, 1852–1912, by Donald Keene (Columbia U. Press, 2005), Kindle pp. 46-47:

Sachinomiya’s schooling began in 1859 when Prince Takahito (1812–1886) was appointed as his calligraphy teacher. The fact that Sachinomiya’s first teacher was a calligrapher suggests the importance attached to being able to write a distinguished hand. Although calligraphy was of only minor importance to a European prince, in Japan it was an indispensable element in the education of the aristocracy. A member of the imperial family was required to display his skill as a calligrapher on relatively few occasions, but it was essential that whenever he did write, his handwriting would be not merely acceptable but an imposing mirror of his character. It is difficult to say how proficient Emperor Meiji eventually became, however, because so little survives in his handwriting.

Sachinomiya had actually begun calligraphy practice during the previous year, but this instruction was apparently casual; now that he was in his eighth year, he was expected to study calligraphy (and other subjects) systematically under appropriate tutors. Prince Takahito was chosen to teach the prince calligraphy because his family had long been renowned for its penmanship. ...

From this time on, Prince Takahito came several times a month on appointed days to offer calligraphy instruction to Sachinomiya. On June 4 the pupil presented for his teacher’s approbation some characters of which he had made fair copies, an occasion for a further exchange of gifts. By August 10 the young prince, apparently pleased with his own progress, was presenting to attendants samples of his calligraphy—one or two characters each, most frequently naka [中] and yama [山]. [These two ubiquitous characters were the first ones our daughter learned to recognize at age 2 when we lived in Zhongshan (中山) City, Guangdong in 1987–88.]

In the meantime, he had commenced another kind of study, reading the Confucian classics. On May 29 Fusehara Nobusato (1823–1876) was appointed as his reading tutor. During the first session with his pupil, he read a passage from the Classic of Filial Piety three times. Naturally, a boy of seven could not be expected to understand a Chinese philosophical text, even when read in Japanese pronunciation; but before long, Sachinomiya was able to recognize characters and read them aloud, following his teacher. This method of learning, known as sodoku [素読], was surprisingly effective, as we know from the generations of Japanese who learned Chinese in this way and were later able to read and write it competently; but it must have been excruciatingly boring for a boy to recite by the hour words that meant nothing to him.

As soon as Sachinomiya completed the sodoku reading of the Classic of Filial Piety, Emperor Kōmei commanded that he begin reading the Great Learning. In a sodoku class of boys of the same age, there might at least have been the pleasure of friendly emulation or perhaps fun shared at the expense of the teacher, but Sachinomiya at first had little companionship in his lessons. The nobleman Uramatsu Tarumitsu (1850–1915) became Sachinomiya’s sole school playmate in 1861, when he was eleven and the future emperor Meiji was ten (by Japanese count).

03 December 2021

Japan's Angriest Emperor, 1858

From Emperor of Japan: Meiji and His World, 1852–1912, by Donald Keene (Columbia U. Press, 2005), Kindle pp. 38-40:

Kōmei became increasingly outspoken in his condemnation of the policy of allowing foreigners into the country. On July 27, 1858, he sent envoys to the Great Shrine of Ise, the Iwashimizu Hachiman Shrine, and the Kamo Shrine to pray for divine protection. In a semmyō [imperial proclamation] he asked the gods, if warfare should break out between Japan and the foreign barbarians, to send a divine wind (kamikaze) like the one that had destroyed the ships of the Mongol invaders in the thirteenth century. He also asked the gods to punish those who, by their failure to repay the blessings they had received from the country, showed themselves disloyal—meaning those who favored opening the country.

Kōmei’s prayers went unanswered. On July 29 the Shimoda magistrate Inoue Kiyonao met with Townsend Harris aboard the warship Powhattan [sic, actually the USS Powhatan), then anchored off Kanagawa, and signed the treaty of amity and commerce between the United States and Japan. The treaty included a schedule of dates during the next five years when ports in addition to Shimoda and Hakodate—Kanagawa (Yokohama), Nagasaki, Hyōgo (Kōbe), and Niigata—were to be opened to foreign ships.

On July 31 the shogunate sent word to the court reporting the conclusion of the treaty with America, explaining that because of the great urgency involved, there had been no time to seek the court’s advice. When the court received this letter, Kōmei was predictably furious. He sent for the chancellor and gave him a letter in which he announced his intention of abdicating the throne.


The emperor had left political matters to the shogunate and had hesitated to express his opinion for fear of worsening relations between the military and the court, but this had led to a difficult situation. At a loss what to do and having only limited ability, he had decided to relinquish the throne. Because Sachinomiya [the future Emperor Meiji] was too young to be his successor at a time when the nation faced a grave crisis, he therefore proposed one of the three princes of the blood. It was definitely not because he desired to lead a life of ease and pleasure that he was abdicating; it was because he wished someone more capable than himself to deal with the problems of state. He asked the chancellor to forward his request to the shogunate.

The letter plainly indicated Kōmei’s dissatisfaction with the shogunate’s inability to handle the foreigners. Although he did not mention this in this letter, he had become increasingly convinced that the foreigners had to be expelled, whatever the cost; their presence in Japan was an affront to the gods and to his ancestors. What makes this and his subsequent letters in a similar vein memorable is the impression they convey of a tormented human being. It is true that much of the phraseology is stereotyped, but no other emperor, at least for hundreds of years, had expressed such bitter frustration, such a sense of powerlessness, despite the grandeur of his title. Kōmei had become a tragic figure, and from this point until the terrible conclusion of his life, he had only brief periods of respite from anger and despair. To find parallels in Japanese history we would have to go back to the exiled emperors Gotoba and Godaigo. Perhaps Richard II, at least as Shakespeare portrayed him, resembled Kōmei even more closely in his awareness of how little control he possessed over his destiny. The barrage of letters Kōmei directed to the officers of his court, lamenting each new development, is without parallel in the correspondence of Japanese sovereigns.

02 December 2021

Dutch Urge Japan to Open, 1856

From Emperor of Japan: Meiji and His World, 1852–1912, by Donald Keene (Columbia U. Press, 2005), Kindle p. 30:

Two days after Harris’s arrival in Shimoda [1856], Jan Hendrik Donker Curtius (1813–1879), formerly the chief merchant of the Dutch trading station on Deshima but now the Netherlands government commissioner, sent (by way of the Nagasaki magistrate) a letter to the shogunate in which he urged that the policy of the closed country be abandoned. He predicted that if Japan persisted in this policy, it would lead to war with the major countries of the world. He also called for the old regulations against Christianity to be lifted, deploring in particular, as contrary to good relations with other countries, the use of fumie (images, generally of the Virgin Mary) that the Japanese were obliged to tread on to demonstrate that they were not Christians. He pointed out the advantages to Japan of trade with foreign countries and advised the Japanese to set up a schedule of import duties and encourage the production of wares suitable for export. He suggested also that men from countries with relations with Japan be permitted to bring their wives and children to live with them in the open ports. Finally, Curtius asked that the restrictions on foreign ships be lifted and the laws revised with respect to permission to leave the ports and to travel to Edo.

Twelve years earlier (in 1844) Willem II, the king of Holland, had sent a letter to the shogunate asking that the country be opened to trade. The haughty officials did not deign to respond, but since then the situation had changed dramatically, and the shogunate now felt that it had to give serious consideration to Donker Curtius’s suggestions. At the council meeting, virtually all those present spoke in favor of opening the country speedily. Only Abe Masahiro, worried about the reactions of the various domains and fanatical patriots, said that the time was not yet ripe for such action. No one defended the longstanding tradition of the closed country. The shift in policy had occurred with startling swiftness.

01 December 2021

Response to Russians at Nagasaki, 1853

From Emperor of Japan: Meiji and His World, 1852–1912, by Donald Keene (Columbia U. Press, 2005), Kindle pp. 20-22:

The court had not yet recovered from the shock of Perry’s unexpected visit when it was informed by the shogunate on September 19 that a Russian fleet of four ships, under the command of Vice Admiral E. V. Putiatin (1803–1884), had entered Nagasaki Harbor. On his arrival, Putiatin announced to the officials in Nagasaki that he had brought from his government a letter concerning trade between the two countries. His orders had initially called for him to proceed to Edo and conduct negotiations there, but the Russian government later decided it would be better to show respect for Japanese law by proceeding to Nagasaki, the port designated for intercourse with foreign countries, in this way establishing a contrast with the Americans, who had brazenly sailed into Edo Bay.

Soon after the arrival of the Russian ships, various Japanese dignitaries came aboard along with a Dutch interpreter. They were informed by the captain of the Pallada that Vice Admiral Putiatin had brought a letter from his government to the Japanese government. There was also a note for the Nagasaki magistrate that, it was said, should be delivered immediately. After some hesitation, the officials accepted the note. It contained a declaration in extremely polite language of the profound respect for Japanese law that had impelled the Russian fleet to call at Nagasaki rather than Edo. This was a mark of the czar’s ardent desire for harmonious relations between the two countries. The officials at once sent word to Edo reporting the arrival of the Russians and asking whether or not to accept the letter from the Russian government. After waiting some time for an reply, Putiatin sailed to Shanghai to pick up supplies and perhaps to find additional orders from his government.  When there was still no answer even after he got back from Shanghai, he announced that he had no choice under the circumstances but to go to Edo.

The alarmed Nagasaki officials sent word by fast messenger to Edo, mentioning how much more accommodating the Russians were than the Americans and suggesting that the Russians might be used to blunt the edge of American demands. They added that if the Russian overtures were met with the usual suspiciousness, Japan risked incurring the enmity of a country that was twice as big as the United States.

Shortly before the messages from Nagasaki reached Edo, the shogun Tokugawa Ieyoshi died, and the senior officers of the shogunate, in mourning and faced with organizing a new regime, did not get around immediately to responding to the problem of how to answer the Russians. After considerable debate, they decided to accept the letter from the Russian court, falling back on the precedent established by accepting the American president’s letter.

The letter (in Russian but with translations into Chinese and Dutch) from Count Karl Robert Nesselrode, the minister of foreign affairs, expressed his hopes for establishing peace and good relations between the two countries, for settling the disputed border between Japan and Russia on the island of Sakhalin, and for opening ports to trade. Most senior members of the shogunate favored accepting the Russian requests, but Tokugawa Nariaki, the shogunate’s adviser on maritime affairs, was strongly opposed, and the discussions dragged on. The shogunate finally agreed that the best course was to delay.

Putiatin grew increasingly impatient over the failure of the shogunate officials to return with an answer from Edo, as promised by the Nagasaki officials, and threatened again to sail to Edo if they did not appear within five days. Four days later, the tardy officials ... arrived with the shogunate’s reply to Nesselrode’s letter. First, it said, the establishment of the border was a difficult matter that would require considerable time to determine. Maps would have to be drawn, consultations made with affected parties, and so on. Second, the laws of their ancestors strictly prohibited opening the ports. However, in view of world developments, the government did recognize the necessity of opening the country, but a new shogun had just taken office and the situation was still too confused to give an immediate answer. Reports would have to be submitted to Kyōto and to the various daimyos. After due consideration of the issues, they expected to be able to come up with a proposal in three to five years.

It is apparent from the message’s wording how desperately the shogunate wanted to stall off a decision; but even more important was the admission that despite the long tradition of isolation, the Japanese now had no choice but to open the country. This awareness of the change in world conditions was not communicated to the court, however, because of the anticipated outraged resistance by Emperor Kōmei.

Putiatin was disappointed by the reply. He moved now to the offensive, informing the shogunate’s representatives that with the exception of the southern part of the island of Sakhalin, all the islands north of Etorofu (Iturup) were Russian territory. Tsutsui replied that Japan had possessed Kamchatka as well as (it went without saying) the Kuriles and Sakhalin. He proposed that shogunate officials be dispatched to Sakhalin the following spring to ascertain the situation. In the meantime, the Russians would be free to obtain firewood and water at any place on the Japanese coast except for the vicinity of Edo. He promised also that if Japan made trade concessions to another country, they would apply to Russia as well.

Putiatin was still not satisfied, but he left Nagasaki early in the first month of 1854, saying he would return in the spring. The most influential men in the country were by now aware that the policy of isolation could not last much longer. As early as the seventh month of 1853, as we have seen, Kuroda Nagahiro, the daimyo of Fukuoka, had formally proposed lifting the ban on constructing large ships. In the eighth month, Shimazu Nariakira, the daimyo of Kagoshima, sent a letter urging the shogunate to purchase ships and weapons from Holland. Abe Masahiro (1819–1857), the chief senior councillor (rōjū shuseki) of the shogunate, who had long advocated building ships that (unlike the small fishing boats that operated off the Japanese coast) were capable of making ocean voyages, decided on October 21 to lift a prohibition that had been in effect for more than 220 years. The shogunate ordered several steam warships from the Dutch, and soon several domains started building large ships, intended for the shogunate. In August 1854 the shogunate decided on the flag to be flown on the new ships: a red sun on a white ground.

25 November 2021

Charms of Exile in Dharamsala

From Eat the Buddha: Life and Death in a Tibetan Town, by Barbara Demick (Random House, 2020), Kindle p. 242:

The exile community was headquartered three hundred miles north of New Delhi in the former British resort town of McLeod Ganj, a village in upper Dharamsala developed by the British military in the mid-nineteenth century as a cantonment for troops administering the region. The British had been drawing up plans to turn it into a summer capital, when, in 1905, an earthquake devastated the town and forced their retreat to lower, firmer ground. After India’s independence, the town was left with an inventory of empty real estate—quaint colonial buildings crumbling into the hillsides. When the Dalai Lama fled to India, a shrewd merchant who ran McLeod’s general store prodded the Indian government to offer him the village as his base. It suited the needs of the Indian government to accommodate the Dalai Lama in a place that befitted his status but was comfortably out of the way so as not to irritate the Chinese government too much.

Dharamsala appealed as well to the Tibetans, who appreciated its relatively cool temperatures, mountain air, and auspicious name—“dwelling place of the dharma” in Hindi. All slopes and switchbacks with barely a horizontal surface in sight, Dharamsala didn’t much resemble Tibet, but a snow-capped spur of the Himalayas was visible in the distance. Around the Dalai Lama sprung up an entire parallel universe of Tibet, hinting of home. The Central Tibetan Administration had its own ministers and parliament, schools, museum, library, and civil service employees—even a civil service exam. (“We don’t have a country but we have bureaucracy,” a spokesman told me, apologizing for the requirement that a press pass was needed to visit a school.) Empty storefronts filled up with hotels, cafés with multilingual menus and cuisine, English-language bookstores, yoga studios, and boutiques selling copper singing bowls and prayer beads.

24 November 2021

Tibetan Protests, 2008

 From Eat the Buddha: Life and Death in a Tibetan Town, by Barbara Demick (Random House, 2020), Kindle p. 182:

MARCH 2008 SAW protests throughout the region. Men on horseback stormed a township near Labrang Monastery. Police opened fire on protesters in at least one other town in Sichuan province, Kardze (or Ganzi in Chinese). But Ngaba’s protest was the deadliest outside Lhasa, cementing the town’s reputation as a hotbed of discontent. “There’s a saying that when there is a fire in Lhasa, the smoke rises in Ngaba,” the head of an exile association told me a few years later. Although the uprising in Lhasa was for the most part peaceful, it was marred by some nasty personal assaults that strayed far from the Dalai Lama’s teachings on nonviolence. Tibetan gangs attacked random Han Chinese civilians riding motorcycles on a main street in Lhasa and torched shops belong to Hui Muslims, the result of a long history of Buddhist-Muslim tensions in the area. At least twenty were killed, including members of one entire Hui family, burned in their shops. The facts remain unconfirmed because there has never been an opportunity for independent reporting. According to the Tibetan Center for Human Rights and Democracy, which obtained some leaked autopsy reports, at least 101 Tibetans were killed by security services that opened fire on demonstrators.

Ngaba’s Tibetans more closely adhered to the nonviolent ideal. They did not vent their anger against Chinese civilians, only against the police and military. Although there was some looting, for the most part Tibetans spared Hui shops from attack—testament to the long history of congenial relations with Muslims in Ngaba. And in this deadly day of fighting, there were no reports of serious injuries sustained by Chinese in Ngaba.

22 November 2021

China's New Tibet Policy, 1994

From Eat the Buddha: Life and Death in a Tibetan Town, by Barbara Demick (Random House, 2020), Kindle pp. 144-145:

Tibet policy was handled by the United Front Work Department, a Soviet-inspired organization designed to coordinate relations between the Party and outsiders, including ethnic minorities. At a meeting in 1994 known as the Third National Forum on Work in Tibet, the Party directed the United Front to rein in Tibetan religious life. “The struggle between ourselves and the Dalai clique is not a matter of religious belief nor a matter of the question of autonomy; it is a matter of securing the unity of our country and opposing splittism,” read an internal version of the statement produced at the forum. The monasteries, they claimed, were breeding grounds for activism.

The new policy criminalized many aspects of Tibetan culture and religion. In the past, Communist Party members had been prohibited from visiting temples and monasteries and keeping shrines in their homes, but now the ban was extended to all government employees. That was a large slice of the workforce in a Communist system and included teachers, bus drivers, conductors, and the millions who worked for state-owned enterprises. All monks and nuns were also targeted for what was called “patriotic education,” indoctrination sessions to foster loyalty to the Communist Party.

At first these new policies applied only to what the Chinese designated as the Tibet Autonomous Region, centered around Lhasa. As part of Sichuan province, Ngaba was still enjoying the intellectual and cultural renaissance that had begun the decade before. But by the late 1990s, the United Front decided to expand the campaign, and their first target was Kirti, as one of the largest and most influential monasteries in the region.

It started so abruptly and dramatically that monks remembered the exact date: June 15, 1998. A work team of officials from the United Front and the State Administration for Religious Affairs showed up at Kirti. They set up a long table and chairs at the entrance to the assembly hall, a long gold-peaked building raised three feet off the ground, which gave the impression of being on a stage. All of Kirti’s monks, some of them quite elderly, were directed to sit cross-legged on the pavement in front like children—a breach of etiquette that was shocking to the younger monks who had never seen anybody position themselves above their seniors in that way. They also were appalled by the way the Communist Party officials were chain-smoking. Tibetans don’t smoke as much as Han Chinese and certainly never in a monastery.