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.

Jan 312016


Today is the birthday (1543) of Tokugawa Ieyasu (徳川 家康), the founder and first shogun of the Tokugawa shogunate of Japan, which virtually ruled Japan from the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600 until the Meiji Restoration in 1868. Ieyasu seized power in 1600, received appointment as shogun in 1603, abdicated from office in 1605 (a formal norm), but de facto remained in power until his death in 1616. His given name is sometimes spelled Iyeyasu, according to the historical pronunciation of he. Ieyasu was posthumously enshrined at Nikkō Tōshō-gū with the name Tōshō Daigongen (東照大権現).


Ieyasu is famed as the founder of the Edo period (江戸時代) or Tokugawa period (徳川時代), in Japan, the period between 1603 and 1868 in the history of Japan, when Japanese society was under the rule of the Tokugawa shogunate and the country’s 300 regional daimyo. The period was characterized by economic growth, strict social order, isolationist foreign policies, a stable population, popular enjoyment of well known arts and culture, recycling of materials, and sustainable land and forest management. It was both a sustainable and self-sufficient society which was based on the principles of the highly practical management of finite resources. The shogunate was officially established in Edo on March 24, 1603, by Tokugawa Ieyasu. The period came to an end with the Meiji Restoration on May 3, 1868, after the fall of Edo.


In many ways, foreigners think of the culture of the Edo period as “traditional” Japanese culture — after a long period of inner conflict, the first goal of the newly established Tokugawa government under Ieyasu was to pacify, and stabilize, the country. It created a balance of power that remained (fairly) stable for the next 250 years, influenced by Confucian principles of social order. Most samurai lost their direct possession of the land: all land ownership was concentrated in the hands of about 300 daimyo. The samurai had a choice: give up their swords and become peasants, or move to the city of their feudal lord and become paid retainers. Only a few landed samurai remained in the border provinces of the north, or as direct vassals of the shogun — the 5,000 so-called hatamoto. The daimyo were put under tight control of the shogunate. Their families had to reside in Edo; the daimyo themselves had to reside in Edo for one year and in their provinces (han) for the next. This system was called sankin kōtai. This practice ended internecine wars among the daimyo.

The individual had no legal rights in Tokugawa Japan. The family was the smallest legal entity, and the maintenance of family status and privileges was of great importance at all levels of society. For example, the Edo period penal laws prescribed “non-free labor” or slavery for the immediate family of executed criminals in Article 17 of the Gotōke reijō (Tokugawa House Laws), but the practice never became common. The 1711 Gotōke reijō was compiled from over 600 statutes promulgated between 1597 and 1696. (Click the graphic to see the full social order).


During the Tokugawa period, the social order, based on inherited position rather than personal merits, was rigid and highly formalized. At the top were the Emperor and Court nobles (kuge), together with the Shogun and daimyo. Below them the population was divided into four classes in a system known as mibunsei (身分制): the samurai on top (about 5% of the population) and the peasants (more than 80% of the population) on the second level. Below the peasants were the craftsmen, and even below them, on the fourth level, were the merchants. Only the peasants lived in the rural areas. Samurai, craftsmen and merchants lived in the cities that were built around the daimyo’s castles, each restricted to their own quarter.

Outside the four classes were the so-called eta and hinin, those whose professions broke the taboos of Buddhism. Eta were butchers, tanners and undertakers. Hinin served as town guards, street cleaners, and executioners. Other outsiders included the 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. Hinin were only allowed inside a special quarter of the city. Other limitations on the Hinin included disallowing them from wearing robes longer than knee-length and the wearing of hats. Sometimes eta villages were not even printed on official maps. A sub-class of Hinin who were born into their social class had no option of mobility to a different social class whereas the other class of Hinin who had lost their previous class status could be reinstated in Japanese society. In the 19th century the umbrella term burakumin was coined to name the eta and hinin because both classes were forced to live in separate village neighborhoods. The eta, hinin and burakumin classes were officially abolished in 1871. Their cultural and societal impact, including some forms of discrimination, continued, however, into modern times.

edo16 edo15 edo10 edo17

Edo period cuisine is seen by many outsiders as “classic” Japanese food. It represents the height of sustainability – vegetables, pickles, rice, and fish. Livestock cultivation was largely forbidden. Even tofu was considered decadent and highly prized. Tofu, also known as bean curd, is made by coagulating soy milk and then pressing the resulting curds into soft white blocks. Tofu originated in Han dynasty China some 2,000 years ago. Tofu and its production technique were introduced into Japan during the Nara period (710–794). The spread of tofu throughout Asia probably coincided with the spread of Buddhism because it is an important source of protein in the vegetarian diet of East Asian Buddhism.

Tofu has a low calorie count and relatively large amounts of protein. It is high in iron, and depending on the coagulants used in manufacturing (e.g. calcium chloride, calcium sulfate, magnesium sulfate), it can have higher calcium or magnesium content.

Tofu is incredibly versatile and amenable to all manner of flavorings. One of my favorite snacks from Japan is to warm it in dashi (bonito broth) and serve it topped with a sweet soy based paste. This was my breakfast this morning:


But have at it. Serve it in miso soup, casseroles, fried, with vegetables – you name it.

edo12 edo14 edo13 edo11

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