Aug 112018

Today is the birthday (1833) of Kido Takayoshi (木戸 孝允) (born Wada Kogorō (和田 小五郎), also referred to as Kido Kôin (木戸 こういん), a Japanese samurai who is considered one of the three great architects of the Meiji Restoration. As I noted here the Meiji Restoration was not quite what it is portrayed as in Western media. As I also noted here recently the Meiji Restoration got rid of the old Japanese rigid social structure, not because it was old fashioned, but because it had become unstable, and unable to deal with present realities. Many Westerners lament the loss of Edo Period culture in Japan, but the Japanese (by and large) do not. Think of this in terms of the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA), a supposedly Medieval re-enactment society (but mostly Renaissance, with many anachronisms of its own). All the members want to be knights and nobles (or perhaps wizards and such). No one wants to be a peasant, yet the bulk of Medieval Europeans were peasants. Likewise, the bulk of Edo Period Japanese people were peasants with no hope of social mobility. Meanwhile, the samurai class had hereditary (high) status – end of story. Obviously, the samurai class did not want to see an end to the system, but the great bulk of the population were happy to see the changes. Forget The Last Samurai, it’s sentimental claptrap (and not historically accurate either). Takayoshi was a samurai, and was one of the architects of the system that ended their hereditary privilege.

Takayoshi was born in Hagi, Chōshū Domain (present-day Yamaguchi Prefecture), the youngest son of Wada Masakage (和田 昌景), a samurai physician, and his second wife Seiko. He was later adopted into the Katsura family at age 7 and was known, thereafter, as Katsura Kogorō (桂 小五郎). He was educated at Shoka Sonjuku, the academy of Yoshida Shōin, where he adopted the philosophy of Imperial loyalism. In 1852, he went to Edo to study swordsmanship, established ties with radical samurai from Mito domain, learned artillery techniques with Egawa Tarōzaemon, and (after observing the construction of foreign ships in Nagasaki and Shimoda), returned to Chōshū to supervise the construction of the domain’s first Western-style warship.

After 1858, Takayoshi was based in Edo where he served as liaison between the domain bureaucracy and radical elements among the young, lower-echelon Chōshū samurai who supported the Sonnō jōi movement, which vowed to revere the emperor, expel foreigners, and, in the process, get rid of the Tokugawa shogunate which supported foreign incursion. He came under suspicion by the shogunate for his ties with Mito loyalists after the attempted assassination of Andō Nobumasa, and so was transferred to Kyōto. However, while in Kyōto, he was unable to prevent the 30th September 1863 coup d’état by the forces of the Aizu and Satsuma domains, who drove the Chōshū forces out of the city.

According to his personal diary, Takayoshi was at a loyalist meeting with the Ishin shishi (samurai in favor of Sonnō jōi) at the Ikedaya inn on the evening of July 8th, 1864. He claimed that they had met only to discuss how to protect Shuntaro Furutaka (a shishi leader) from the Shinsengumi (Kyoto police of the shogunate). Shinsengumi troops attacked the inn on that night, which became known as the Ikedaya incident, but Takayoshi says he left early and was not involved. Shuntaro Furutaka was captured and brutally tortured. There were rumors that Takayoshi was tipped off by his geisha lover, Ikumatsu (幾松), that the Shinsengumi were coming for him and chose not show up for the meeting at all, or that he climbed out the window of the upper floor of the inn during the attack by the Shinsengumi and escaped over the roofs. He spent the next five days in hiding under Nijō Bridge along the Kamo River, posing as a beggar. Ikumatsu brought him rice balls from the shop of the Chōshū merchant Imai Tarōemon, and later aided in his escape.

Takayoshi was involved in, but not present at, the Hamaguri Gate Rebellion on 20th August 1864: the unsuccessful attempt to capture the Emperor Kōmei by Chōshū forces at Hamaguri Gate in order to restore the Imperial household to its position of political supremacy. The Chōshū forces clashed with Aizu and Satsuma forces which led to their defense of the Imperial palace. During the attempt, the Chōshū rebels set Kyoto on fire, starting with the residence of the Takatsukasa family, and that of a Chōshū official. The rebellion resulted in casualties of about 400 of the Chōshū forces and only 60 from Aizu and Satsuma forces, with 28,000 houses being burnt down, forcing Katsura into hiding again with his geisha lover. He later used the name Niibori Matsusuke as an alias in 1865 to continue his work against the Tokugawa shogunate.

After radical elements under Takasugi Shinsaku gained control of Chōshū politics, Takayoshi was instrumental in establishing the Satchō Alliance with Saigō Takamori and Ōkubo Toshimichi through the mediation of Sakamoto Ryōma, which proved to be critical in the Boshin War and the subsequent Meiji Restoration. Following the overthrow of the Tokugawa shogunate in 1868, Takayoshi (now using that name), claimed a major role in the establishment of the new Meiji government. As a san’yo (Imperial Advisor) he helped draft the Five Charter Oath, and initiated policies of centralization and modernization. He helped direct the Abolition of the han system (system of domains governed by daimyo). In August 1868, he had Ikumatsu adopted into a samurai family of Okabe Tomitarō, and later married her.

On 23rd December 1871, he accompanied the Iwakura Mission on its round-the-world voyage to the United States and Europe, and was especially interested in Western educational systems and politics. On his return to Japan on 13th September 1873, he became a strong advocate of the establishment of constitutional government. Realizing that Japan was not in any position to challenge the Western powers in its current state, he also returned to Japan just in time to prevent an invasion of Korea (Seikanron). Takayoshi lost his dominant position in the Meiji oligarchy to Ōkubo Toshimichi, and resigned from government in protest of the Taiwan Expedition of 1874, which he had strenuously opposed. Following the Osaka Conference of 1875, he agreed to return to the government, and became chairman of the Assembly of Prefectural Governors that the Ōsaka Conference had created. He was also responsible for the education of the young Emperor Meiji.

During the middle of Satsuma Rebellion of 1877, Takayoshi died of an illness that had been plaguing him for a long time, which consisted of a combination of some form of brain disorder and physical exhaustion, years of excessive alcohol consumption as well as an illness assumed to be tuberculosis or beriberi. He was buried at the Kyoto Ryozen Gokoku Shrine, Kyoto, Japan. His widow survived him and died in 1887 at the age of 43. Kido Takayoshi was enshrined as the Shinto deity of scholarship and the martial arts at the Kido Shrine in about 1886 at Kido Park, Yamaguchi, Yamaguchi Prefecture, Japan. His diary reveals an intense internal conflict between his loyalty to his home domain, Chōshū, and the greater interest of the country. He wrote often of having to fight rumors at home that he had betrayed his old friends; the idea of a nation was still relatively new in Japan and so the majority of samurai cared more for securing privileges for their own domain.

Together with Saigō Takamori and Ōkubo Toshimichi, he became known as one of the Ishin-no-Sanketsu (維新の三傑), which means, roughly, “Three Great Nobles of the Restoration”. He is still a popular figure showing up in manga and anime, and also in video games.


I have mentioned Japanese yōshoku (洋食 western food) before and I gave a recipe for omurice (omelet rice) there. I’ll repeat a little bit about it for the sake of new readers. In Japanese cuisine, yōshoku originated during the Meiji Restoration. These are primarily Japanese versions of European dishes, often featuring Western names, and usually written in katakana. Jihei Ishii, author of the 1898 The Complete Japanese Cookbook (日本料理法大全), states unequivocally that: “Yōshoku is Japanese food.” To many foreigners, yōshoku may not seem like Washoku (Japanese traditional dishes), yet there are many yōshoku dishes which have themselves become traditional in the eyes of the Japanese. Some of them are even thought of as traditional comfort food because they are home cooked and bring memories of childhood.

Yōshoku began by altering Western recipes for lack of information about foreign countries’ cuisine, or adaptions to suit local tastes, but over time, yōshoku also evolved dishes that were not at all based on European foods, such as chicken rice and omurice. Elaborate sauces were largely eliminated, replaced with tomato ketchup, demi-glace sauce, and Worcester sauce. Here’s a good video on how to prepare soup curry. You will need to find Japanese curry which is not like Indian curry at all.

Aug 022018

On this date in 1868 as part of the Meiji reforms in Japan, the strict social codes enacted during the Edo period, also called Tokugawa period (1603 to 1868 CE), were officially abolished. The Edo social regulations were intended to promote stability, and for some time they did. But careful examination of the system indicates that it was not quite as rigid as portrayed in media and popular thinking, and it contained the seeds of its own destruction in the face of internal and external pressures.

The Tokugawa shogunate intentionally created a social order called the Four Divisions of Society (shinōkōshō), that was meant to stabilize a country torn for centuries by warfare. The hereditary nobility and emperor were nominally at the top of Japanese society, but they were figureheads only, and were not included in the actual social structure that the shoguns enforced (except as puppets). The real social structure was composed of samurai (侍 shi), farming peasants (農 nō), artisans (工 kō) and merchants (商 shō). Samurai were at the top of society, acting as moral examples for others to follow. The system reinforced and justified their ruling status. Peasants came second because they were food producers, and, therefore, produced wealth, (in the basic terms of Wealth of Nations). Artisans came third because they produced wealth, but their products were considered nonessential (as opposed to food). Merchants were at the bottom of the social order because they generated wealth without producing any goods. The classes were not arranged according to access to wealth or capital – some samurai were poor, and some peasants were rich – but according to what Japanese philosophers described as their relative “moral purity.”

In actuality, shinōkōshō does not accurately describe all of Tokugawa society. Buddhist and Shinto priests, court nobles (kuge), and outcast classes including eta and hinin, were not included in this description of the hierarchy. The eta and hinin were people whose work broke the taboos of Buddhism. Eta were butchers, tanners and undertakers. Hinin served as town guards, street cleaners, and executioners. Other outsiders included beggars, entertainers, and prostitutes. The word eta literally translates to “filthy” and hinin to “non-humans”, a thorough reflection of the attitude held by other classes that the eta and hinin were not even people .

Also, shinōkōshō is a highly idealized and generalized description. In some cases, a poor samurai could be little better off than a peasant and the lines between the classes could blur, especially between artisans and merchants in urban areas. Still, the theory provided grounds for restricting privileges and responsibilities to different classes and it gave a sense of order to society. In practice, rigidified social relationships helped create the political stability that defined the Edo period, and was also the cause of its demise.


Samurai traditionally functioned as the warrior class in Japan; they constituted about 7–8% of the population. The other classes were prohibited from possessing long swords such as the tachi or katana. Carrying both a long and a short sword became the symbol of the samurai class. During the feudal period, samurai were warriors that fought for a lord in a feudal relationship. The Edo period, however, was largely free from both external threats and internal conflicts. Instead, the samurai maintained their fighting skills more as an art than in order to fight. Samurai were paid a stipend from their lord, and, samurai could not own land, which would have given them income independent from their duty. Samurai generally lived around their daimyō’s castle, creating a thriving town or city environment around the middle of a domain.

There were social stratifications within the samurai class. Upper-level samurai had direct access to their daimyō and could hold his most trusted positions. Some achieved a level of wealth that allowed them to retain their own samurai vassals. Mid-level samurai held military and bureaucratic positions and had some interactions with their daimyō if needed. Low-level samurai could be paid as little as a subsistence wage and worked as guards, messengers, and clerks. Positions within the class were largely hereditary, and talented samurai could not rise more than a few social steps above their positions at birth. Outside the traditional samurai–lord relationship were the rōnin, or masterless samurai, who were generally accorded very low levels of respect, had no income, and often became gamblers, bandits, or the like.

Western perceptions of the samurai class are either anachronistic or misleading. Depictions of the samurai in media, such as The Last Samurai, tend to miss the point. Former samurai who refused to change their ways under the Meiji Restoration were not just attempting to preserve traditional culture; they were also trying to maintain their heredity social status in a changing world – a world based more on meritocracy than on inherited positions. It is also misleading to project the samurai as warriors skilled in traditional Japanese martial arts only. Their traditional martial arts skills were largely ceremonial. When they fought towards the end of the Edo period, they frequently used rifles and other Western weaponry.


Life for rural peasants was focused on their villages. Peasants rarely moved beyond their villages, and journeys and pilgrimages required a permit. However, young peasants occasionally sought seasonal employment outside of their village. Social bonding was critical to the survival of the whole village and was constantly reinforced through patterns of kinship, formal customs, and seasonal festivals. Villages were highly collective; there were strong pressures to conform and no room to deviate from custom. Individuals had no social or legal standing; the family was the smallest social unit. Though there were conflicts, they were seen as disruptive to the village and order and were to be limited as much as possible. Villagers were highly suspicious of outsiders

The peasant class could own land, but the daimyō had rights to tax this land. Peasants worked to produce enough food for themselves and still meet the tax burden. Most farming during this time was centered on families living on their own land, in contrast to the plantation or hacienda model (where peasants did not own the land). Peasants could amass relatively large amounts of wealth but nonetheless remained peasants. Wealthier families and those that held their own land and paid taxes were held in much higher regard and had more political influence in village matters. However, the survival of the village depended on every household cooperating to meet the tax burden and overcome natural disasters such as famines. During the reign of the third Tokugawa shōgun, Iemitsu, farmers were not allowed to eat any of the rice they grew. They had to hand it all over to their daimyo and then wait for him to give some back as charity.

Merchants and artisans

By 1800, as much as 10% of the population of Japan may have lived in large towns and cities, one of the highest levels in the world at the time. The daimyōs and their samurai did not produce any goods themselves, but they used the tax surplus from the land to pay for their consumption. Their needs were met by artisans, who moved to be around the castles, and merchants, who traded local and regional goods. Each class in the city was restricted to living in its own quarter.

Merchants grew increasingly powerful during this period. Wealthy merchant houses arose to organize distributors and hold legal monopolies. As their wealth grew, merchants wanted to consume and display their wealth in the same manner as the samurai, but laws prevented them from doing so overtly. Still, their consumption combined with that of the samurai served to reinforce the growth of the merchant and artisan classes.

The foundation of this period was its stable social order. However, as wealth became increasingly concentrated outside of the samurai class, social conflict grew. The fixed stipends on which samurai lived did not increase despite the rising cost of commodities and the increasingly burdensome cost of proper social etiquette so many samurai became in debt to wealthy merchant families. The wealthy merchants, in turn, were restricted from showing their wealth for fear of violating the laws that restricted privileges to the samurai class. That created deepening resentment but also increasing interdependence between the two classes. Some scholars began to question the Confucian beliefs that provided the foundation of society.

Changes in rural areas were also creating conflict. New technology increased productivity and allowed some families to produce a surplus of food that could be used to support ventures beyond farming. Some peasants also became indebted to their wealthier neighbors, and more families lost ownership of their land. This sparked resentment that sometimes erupted in violence towards landlords and village elite. The challenges laid the foundation for the changes that would follow during the Meiji period.

I have discussed the cooking of the Edo Period several times before. When foreigners think of “Japanese cuisine” they typically think of Edo Period dishes such as sushi and sashimi. There’s a lot more to Edo Period cooking than sushi and sashimi, and a great deal more to Japanese cooking than Edo Period recipes. But this post focuses on Edo Period culture, so a traditional recipe is in order.

Here is a video on how to prepare hiyayakko, a perfect dish for hot summer days, and extremely easy to prepare. It is perfectly in keeping with dishes served to all classes in the Edo Period. I am giving you a video out of sheer laziness. The dish is simply tofu cubes topped with grated fresh ginger, sliced green onion, and dried bonito flakes with a little soy sauce splashed on.

Apr 282015


On this date in 1253 Nichiren, a Japanese Buddhist monk, chanted Nam Myoho Renge Kyo publicly for the very first time and declares it to be the essence of Buddhism, thus establishing the sect of Nichiren Buddhism. Nichiren (日蓮) (April 6, 1222 – November 21, 1282) lived during the Kamakura period (1185–1333) and taught devotion to the Lotus Sutra (entitled Myōhō-Renge-Kyō in Japanese)— which contained Gautama Buddha’s teachings towards the end of his life — as the exclusive means to attain enlightenment. Nichiren believed that this sutra contained the essence of all of Gautama Buddha’s teachings related to the laws of cause and effect, karma, and leading all people without distinction to enlightenment. This devotion to the sutra entails the chanting of Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō (referred to as daimoku) as the essential practice of the teaching.

Nichiren Buddhism includes various schools such as Nichiren Shōshū, Nichiren Shu and lay movements such as Risshō Kōsei Kai or Soka Gakkai , each claiming to be the only true follower of their founder, with their own interpretations of Nichiren’s teachings. However, despite the differences between schools, all Nichiren sects share the fundamental practice of chanting daimoku. While all Nichiren Buddhist schools regard him as a reincarnation of the Lotus Sutra’s Bodhisattva Superior Practices, Jōgyō Bosatsu (上行菩薩), some schools of Nichiren Buddhism’s Nikkō lineages regard him as the actual Buddha of this age, or the Buddha of the Latter day of the Law and for all eternity.

Nichiren was born on February 16, 1222 in the village of Kominato (today part of the city of Kamogawa), Nagase District, Awa Province (within present-day Chiba Prefecture). Nichiren’s father, a fisherman, was Mikuni-no-Tayu Shigetada, also known as Nukina Shigetada Jiro (d. 1258) and his mother was Umegiku-nyo (d. 1267). On his birth, his parents named him Zennichimaro (善日麿?) which has variously been translated into English as “Splendid Sun” and “Virtuous Sun Boy” among others. The exact site of Nichiren’s birth is believed to be submerged off the shore from present-day Kominato-zan Tanjō-ji (小湊山 誕生寺), a temple in Kominato that commemorates Nichiren’s birth. In his own words, Nichiren stated that he was “the son of a chandala family who lived near the sea in Tojo in Awa Province, in the remote countryside of the eastern part of Japan.”

Nichiren began his Buddhist study at a nearby temple of the Tendai school, Seichō-ji (清澄寺, also called Kiyosumi-dera), at age 11. He was formally ordained at 16 and took the Buddhist name Zeshō-bō Renchō (Rencho meaning Lotus Growth). He left Seichō-ji shortly thereafter to study in Kamakura and several years later traveled to western Japan for more in-depth study in the Kyoto–Nara area, where Japan’s major centers of Buddhist learning were located. In 1233 he went to Kamakura, where he studied Amidism—a pietistic school that stressed salvation through the invocation of Amida (Amitābha), the Buddha of infinite compassion—under the guidance of a renowned master. After having persuaded himself that Amidism was not the true Buddhist doctrine, he passed to the study of Zen Buddhism, which had become popular in Kamakura and Kyōto. He then went to Mount Hiei, the cradle of Japanese Tendai Buddhism, where he found the original purity of the Tendai doctrine corrupted by the introduction and acceptance of other doctrines, especially Amidism and esoteric Buddhism. To eliminate any possible doubts, Nichiren decided to spend some time at Mount Kōya, the centre of esoteric Buddhism, and also in Nara, Japan’s ancient capital, where he studied the Ritsu sect, which emphasized strict monastic discipline and ordination. During this time, he became convinced of the pre-eminence of the Lotus Sutra and in 1253, returned to Seichoji.

On April 28, 1253, he expounded Nam-Myōhō-Renge-Kyō for the first time, marking his Sho Tempōrin (初転法輪: “first turning the wheel of the Law”). With this, he proclaimed that devotion and practice based on the Lotus Sutra was the correct form of Buddhism for the current time. At the same time he changed his name to Nichiren, nichi (日) meaning “sun” and ren (蓮) meaning “lotus.” This choice, as Nichiren himself explained, was rooted in passages from the Lotus Sutra.

After making his declaration, which all schools of Nichiren Buddhism regard as marking their foundation (立宗: risshū), Nichiren began propagating his teachings in Kamakura, then Japan’s de facto capital since it was where the shikken (regent for the shogun) and shogun lived and the government was established. He gained a fairly large following there, consisting of both priests and laity. Many of his lay believers came from among the new samurai class (that is, samurai drawn from the peasant class and not the nobility) .

Among other things, in 1253 Nichiren predicted the Mongol invasions of Japan: a prediction which was validated in 1274. Nichiren viewed his teachings as a method of efficaciously preventing this and other disasters: that the best countermeasure against the degeneracy of the times and its associated disasters was through the activation of Buddha-nature by chanting and the other practices which he advocated.

Nichiren then engaged in writing, publishing various works including his Risshō Ankoku Ron (立正安国論?): “Treatise On Establishing the Correct Teaching for the Peace of the Land” his first major treatise and the first of three remonstrations with government authorities. He felt that it was imperative for the sovereign to recognize and accept the only true and correct form of Buddhism (i.e., 立正: risshō) and the only way to achieve peace and prosperity for the land and its people and end their suffering (i.e., 安国: ankoku). This “true and correct form of Buddhism”, as Nichiren saw it, entailed regarding the Lotus Sutra as the fullest expression of the Buddha’s teachings and putting those teachings into practice. Nichiren thought this could be achieved in Japan by withdrawing lay support so that the deviant monks would be forced to change their ways or revert to laymen to prevent starving. Based on prophecies made in several sutras, Nichiren attributed the occurrence of the famines, disease, and natural disasters (especially drought, typhoons, and earthquakes) of his day to teachings of Buddhism no longer appropriate for the time.


Nichiren submitted his treatise in July 1260. Though it drew no official response, it prompted a severe backlash, especially from among priests of other Buddhist schools. Nichiren was harassed frequently, several times with force, and often had to change homes. Nichiren was exiled to the Izu peninsula in 1261, and pardoned in 1263. He was ambushed and nearly killed at Komatsubara in Awa Province in November 1264.

The following several years were marked by successful propagation activities in eastern Japan that generated more resentment among rival priests and government authorities. After one exchange with the influential priest, Ryōkan (良観), Nichiren was summoned for questioning by the authorities in September 1271. He used this as an opportunity to make his second government remonstration. This time to Hei no Saemon (平の左衛門, also called 平頼綱: Taira no Yoritsuna), a powerful police and military figure issued the summons.

Two days later, on September 12, Hei no Saemon and a group of soldiers abducted Nichiren from his hut at Matsubagayatsu, Kamakura. Their intent was to arrest and behead him. According to Nichiren’s account, an astronomical phenomenon — “a brilliant orb as bright as the moon” — over the seaside Tatsunokuchi execution grounds terrified Nichiren’s executioners into inaction. The incident is known as the Tatsunokuchi Persecution and regarded as a turning point in Nichiren’s lifetime called Hosshaku kenpon (発迹顕本), translated as “casting off the transient and revealing the true,” or “Outgrowing the provisional and revealing the essential.”

Unsure of what to do with Nichiren, Hei no Saemon decided to banish him to Sado, an island in the Japan Sea known for its particularly severe winters and a place of harsh exile.


This exile, Nichiren’s second, lasted about three years and, though harsh and in the long term detrimental to his health, represents one of the most important and productive segments of his life. While on Sado, he won many devoted converts and wrote two of his most important doctrinal treatises, the Kaimoku Shō (開目抄: “On the Opening of the Eyes”) and the Kanjin no Honzon Shō (観心本尊抄: “The Object of Devotion for Observing the Mind”) as well as numerous letters and minor treatises whose content containing critical components of his teaching.


It was also during his exile on Sado, in 1272, that he inscribed the first Gohonzon (御本尊). This mandala is a visual representation, in Chinese characters, of the Ceremony in the Air. This ceremony is described in the 11th (Treasure Tower) to 22nd (Entrustment) chapters of the Lotus Sutra. Within these chapters it is revealed that all persons can attain Buddhahood in this lifetime and Shakyamuni transfers the essence of the sutra to the Bodhisattvas of the Earth led by Bodhisattva Superior Practices (Jogyo), entrusting them with the propagation of the essence of the sutra in the Latter Day of the Law. For Nichiren, the Gohonzon embodies the eternal and intrinsic Law of Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo, which he identified as the ultimate Law permeating life and the universe.

Nichiren was pardoned in February 1274 and returned to Kamakura in late March. He was again interviewed by Hei no Saemon, who now was interested in Nichiren’s prediction of an invasion by the Mongols. Mongol messengers demanding Japan’s fealty had frightened the authorities into believing that Nichiren’s prophecy of foreign invasion would materialize (which it later did in October of that year. Nichiren, however, used the audience as yet another opportunity to remonstrate with the government.


His third remonstration also went unheeded, and Nichiren—following a Chinese adage that if a wise man remonstrates three times but is ignored, he should leave the country—decided to go into voluntary exile at Mt. Minobu (身延山) in 1274. With the exception of a few short journeys, Nichiren spent the rest of his life at Minobu, where he and his disciples erected a temple, Kuon-ji (久遠寺), and he continued writing and training his disciples. Two of his works from this period are the Senji Shō (撰時抄: “The Selection of the Time”) and the Hōon Shō (報恩抄: “On Repaying Debts of Gratitude”),which, along with his Risshō Ankoku Ron (立正安国論: “On Establishing the Correct Teaching for the Peace of the Land”), Kaimoku Shō (“The Opening of the Eyes”), and Kanjin no Honzon Shō (“The Object of Devotion for Observing the Mind”), constitute his Five Major Writings. He also inscribed numerous Gohonzon for bestowal upon specific disciples and lay believers. Many of these survive today in the repositories of Nichiren temples such as Taiseki-ji (大石寺) in Fujinomiya, Shizuoka Prefecture, which has a particularly large collection that is publicly aired once a year in April.


Nichiren spent his final years writing, inscribing Gohonzon for his disciples and believers, and delivering sermons. In failing health, he was encouraged to travel to hot springs for their medicinal benefits. He left Minobu in the company of several disciples on September 8, 1282. He arrived ten days later at the residence of Ikegami Munenaka, a lay believer who lived in what is now Ikegami, the site is marked by Ikegami Honmon-ji. On September 25 he delivered his last sermon on the Risshō Ankoku Ron, and on October 8 he appointed six senior disciples—Nisshō (日昭), Nichirō (日朗), Nikkō (日興), Nikō (日向), Nichiji (日持), and Nitchō (日頂)—to continue leading propagation of his teachings after his death. Nichiren Shoshu believe that Nichiren designated five senior priests, and one successor, Nikko.

On October 13, 1282, Nichiren died in the presence of many disciples and lay believers. His funeral and cremation took place the following day. His disciple Nikkō left Ikegami with Nichiren’s ashes on October 21, reaching Minobu on October 25. Nichiren’s original tomb is sited, as per his request, at Kuonji on Mt. Minobu.

A large political change occurred in the Kamakura period. Before the Kamakura period, the samurai were guards of the landed estates of the nobility. The nobility lost control of the Japanese countryside and fell under the militaristic rule of the peasant class samurai. A military government was set up in Kamakura in 1192. Once the positions of power had been exchanged, the role of the court banquets changed. Before this period, the court cuisine emphasized flavor and nutrition, but it changed to a highly ceremonial and official role.

The first shogun was Minamoto Yoritomo. He punished other samurai who followed the earlier showy banquet style of the nobility. The shogun banquet was called “ōban(椀飯).” The ōban was attended by military leaders from the provinces. The origin of the ōban was a luncheon on festival days attended by soldiers and guards during the Heian period.

The menu usually consisted of the followings:

dried abalone

jellyfish (aemono)

pickled plum (umeboshi)

salt and vinegar for flavoring


However towards the end of this period the honzen ryori banquet, a return to elaborate displays,  became popular again.


The cuisine of the new samurai class came distinctly from their peasant roots. The meals prepared emphasized simplicity, avoided refinement, ceremony and luxury and shed all Chinese influence.

The Buddhist vegetarian philosophy strengthened during the Kamakura period. It began to spread to the peasants. Those who were involved in the trade of animals which were slaughtered for food or leather were discriminated against. Those who practiced this trade were considered in opposition to the Buddhist philosophy of not taking life. They were thought of as defiled under Shinto philosophy. This discrimination intensified, and eventually led to the creation of a separate caste called the burakumin.

A plain dish of rice and pickles is still a popular breakfast in Japan. Once when I was in a simple ryokan (guest house) in Uji, center of green tea production, I was sitting at my laptop in the dining area in the early morning and the owner brought me rice and pickles – unasked !! Now rice and pickles is a common staple for me.


One day I will write a post on the different forms of rice and methods of cooking in Asia. All regions have their own styles (and methods of serving and eating). Japanese rice is shorter grained and glutinous, either polished or unpolished. Uruchi mai is the most common kind of Japanese rice used today. Most of the Japonica rice for sale in the U.S. is grown in California, where the method is dry planting instead of flooded fields, so the quality is a bit different, but acceptable.

I use a rice cooker, so it’s straightforward to make perfect rice every time, and keep it warm for the duration of a meal. Otherwise cook it in the traditional way. Wash the rice in a sieve under cold running water until the water becomes clear. Place in a heavy pot with an equal quantity of water. Bring to a boil, turn the heat down to a low simmer, and cover with a tight lid. Cook for 20 minutes then turn off the heat and let steam, still covered, for another 20 minutes. There is a real art to doing this which is why I, and millions of Asians, use an electric cooker.

I used to make my own Japanese pickles, which involves preparing a tub of the fermented leftovers from sake production. Something of a chore, although the end results are great. It’s easier to buy the pickles in an Asian market.


Nov 092013


On this date in 1867 the Tokugawa shogunate in Japan came to its official end, when Tokugawa Yoshinobu, the 15th Tokugawa shogun “put his prerogatives at the Emperor’s disposal” and resigned 10 days later. Thus began the Meiji Restoration, also known as the Meiji Ishin, Revolution, Reform, or Renewal, when 15 year old emperor Meiji was restored as ruler of Japan.  Of course it was not as simple as all that – history rarely is.

The Tokugawa shoguns (hereditary military leaders) had ruled Japan since 1600 when Tokugawa Ieyasu seized control from the emperor.  Emperors continued to exist thereafter but had no power. When Westerners think of “typical” Japanese culture – arts, cuisine, samurai, geishas – they are thinking of the Tokugawa period. The culture had rigid codes of conduct and was strictly isolationist from other cultures.  For 250 years these policies worked, but cracks appeared in the 1850’s when the intrusion of Western ships, notably Commodore Perry’s arrival, made it clear that isolationism had left Japan far behind the rest of the world in many spheres, including technology.  After considerable debate among the powerful there was some (not universal) agreement that the shoguns should relinquish power to the emperor who would then open up Japan to modern influences.  The official end of the shogunate was not the end of the story, however.  People holding a lot of power under the old system were not going to give it up without a fight.

Movies such as “The Last Samurai” (pitiful oversimplification) characterize the rebellion of the supporters of the old shogunate against Meiji’s faction as a cultural war, and to some extent it was.  What is frequently overlooked is that even in the 1850’s Western influences had crept in.  Some samurai wore Western clothes and carried rifles. It was not all about kimonos versus suits — old culture versus new.


What the samurai stood to lose more than their old cultural ways was hereditary privilege which gave them power, wealth, and prestige.  So war was inevitable. In January 1868, the Boshin War (War of the Year of the Dragon) started with the Battle of Toba-Fushimi in which imperial forces defeated the ex-shogun’s army. The following map shows how long and protracted the war between those loyal to the emperor and those to the shogun was after that first battle. It wended its way all around Japan.  And . . . both sides used guns (although many of the shogun supporters used spears and swords).


The Meiji oligarchy that formed the government under the rule of the emperor first introduced measures to consolidate their power against the remnants of the Tokugawa period.  In 1868, all Tokugawa lands were seized and placed under imperial control, thus placing them under the prerogative of the new Meiji government. In 1869 even the lands of daimyo (feudal lords) loyal to the emperor were taken away, thus creating, arguably for the first time, a central government in Japan which exercised direct power through the entire realm.

Throughout Japan at the time, the samurai numbered 1.9 million. (For comparison, this was more than 10 times the size of the French privileged class before the 1789 French Revolution.) Most samurai did not work, but were paid fixed stipends through direct taxation of the peasants. Their upkeep presented a tremendous financial burden on the economy, so the oligarchs took action.  There was also a desire on the part of the oligarchs to break the cultural backbone of the feudal system which had as rigid a hereditary class system as the Indian caste system. The oligarchs embarked on a slow and deliberate process to abolish the samurai class. First, in 1873, it was announced that the samurai stipends were to be taxed on a rolling basis. Later, in 1874, the samurai were given the option to convert their stipends into government bonds. Finally, in 1876, this commutation was made compulsory.

To reform the military, the government instituted nationwide conscription in 1873, mandating that every male would serve in the armed forces upon turning 21 for four years; followed by three more years in the reserves. One of the primary differences between the samurai and peasant class was the right to bear arms; this ancient privilege was suddenly extended to every male in the nation. Furthermore, samurai were no longer allowed to walk about town bearing a sword or weapon to show their status as in former times. This led to a series of riots from disgruntled samurai. One of the major riots was the one led by Saigō Takamori, the Satsuma Rebellion, which eventually turned into a civil war. This rebellion was, however, put down swiftly by the newly formed Imperial Japanese Army, trained in Western tactics and weapons, even though the core of the new army was the Tokyo police force, which was largely composed of former samurai. This sent a strong message to the dissenting samurai that their time was indeed over. There were fewer subsequent samurai uprisings and the distinction became all but a name as the samurai joined the new society. The ideal of samurai military spirit lived on in romanticized form, however, and was often used as propaganda during 20th century wars of the Empire of Japan.

However, it is equally true that the majority of samurai were content despite having their status abolished. Many found employment in the government bureaucracy, which resembled an elite class in its own right. The samurai, being better educated than most of the population, became teachers, gun makers, government officials, or military officers. While the formal title of samurai was abolished, the elitist spirit that characterized the samurai class lived on.

Besides drastic changes to the social structure of Japan, in an attempt to create a strong centralized state defining its national identity, the government established a dominant national dialect, called hy?jungo, that replaced local and regional dialects. It was based on patterns of the Tokyo samurai classes and eventually become the norm in the realms of education, media, government and business.

Meiji in his 50's

Meiji in his 50’s

As part of the Meiji reformations, the Emperor lifted the ban on red meat and promoted Western cuisine, which was viewed as the cause of the Westerner’s greater physical size. The cuisine known as yōshoku was thus created, and as a result of its origins, relies on meat as a common element, unlike the typical Japanese cuisine at the time, based on fish and poultry. Many yōshoku dishes are barely distinguishable from Western counterparts with little more than a slight Japanese twist. They are now considered as Japanese as sushi and are immensely popular, especially at home. Hayashi rice, for example, is a basic stew of beef, onions, and mushrooms in a demi-glace served with rice. It is considered comfort food, much like mac and cheese is in the U.S. However, yōshoku varies greatly in terms of how much Japanese cuisine has influenced the original over the years.  Omurice, for example, is indeed an omelet, but barely.  It consists of some kind of fried rice wrapped in a thin sheet of fried beaten egg and bathed in a sauce such as ketchup or demi-glace.

I’m not a big fan of yōshoku in general.  I’ve had it a few times in Tokyo when I needed a cheap and quick lunch (an indifferent curry and rice and hayashi rice), but ate with little gusto.  I do like Nikujaga, however.  It’s sort of an Irish stew (beef, potatoes, onions, beans, and carrots), but in a sweet soy sauce.  You should use heavily marbled beef if you can, if not use tenderloin. Shirataki are thin, transparent rice noodles. Dashi is the simmering stock of choice because it blends well with the soy.  Dashi is made from dried bonito flakes and kelp, and is the absolute backbone of Japanese cooking. You can get a powdered form in Asian markets. If not you can use beef stock, but it should be thin with low sodium. One important feature of this dish is that the vegetable pieces are big, much bigger than Western norms.



1 tbsp vegetable oil
8 ounces beef sliced thin
1 onion, peeled and cut in thick slices
4 potatoes, peeled and cut into large chunks
1 carrot, peeled and cut into large pieces
4 fresh shiitake mushrooms stems removed and quartered
½ cup sake
2 cups dashi or thin beef broth (low sodium)
2 tbsps sugar
3 tbsps soy sauce
5 oz bag shirataki drained and rinsed
3 ozs green beans, ends trimmed and left whole


Heat the oil over medium-high heat in a heavy pot.

Working in batches, sauté the beef until lightly browned on both sides. Set the beef aside.

Sauté the onions until they are soft, then add the potatoes, carrots, and shiitake mushrooms, and sauté for another 3 minutes.

Add the sake and bring to a rapid boil for about 1 minute.

Turn down the heat to medium, add the dashi, sugar, soy sauce, shirataki, green beans, and beef.

Simmer, partially covered until the potatoes and carrots are well cooked (about 30 mins).

Serves 4-6