It is the end of winter, 1854, and you gaze across the glistening waters of Hakodate harbour. As far as you're concerned, this is the greatest and safest port in the world. But the light of the sun and cool, crisp winds of the sea do little to comfort you.
You are on edge, and so is everyone else still here. The authorities have herded the townsfolk far away, along with their horses, their ships – is it because those who are coming are frightening? Or is it that what they are bringing, and you sense this too, might just herald the cataclysmic collapse of your world, the only world your civilization has known for centuries?
What goes through your mind, your heart, as the Black Ships (kurofune, 黒舟) loom into the bay? They intrude with the certainty of drifting death. You know who is on them. And when the shogunate brought humiliation on the imperial throne by giving in to the foreigners' demands to open up, it is here – in Hakodate – that this capitulation actually means something. That's why the Black Ships are here: surveying the port they've coerced open to service the desires of foreigners and their ships on whatever terms they wish; the port which within five years, after centuries of seclusion, is to be forcibly plugged into the wild and whimsical network of international trade.
Within a few short years they'll come and go as they please, bringing all their crazy ideas and technologies with them, for good or for ill. And after a few years more, the Japan of the Tokugawa shoguns will collapse on itself: and right here, in Hakodate, is where its violent death throes will at last subside, and its final pillar will crumble.
Hakodate is in many ways the ultimate gateway, a bridge between eras and worlds. With typical origins – settlers who put their structures down and chased out the Ainu – Hakodate surged as the Matsumae clan's seat of power and perch on the edge of Hokkaido, and grew into the springboard from which Japan would launch itself at the untamed north. The shogunate, and dramatically more so the imperial regimes that followed, would widen and strengthen this bridge, so as to cross into Hokkaido and make it their own; and so too grow stronger on what came from far across the sea – for once forced open to trade, it was also a bridge to the world.
A bridge in time, too. On one side, Japan the island fortress, the “locked country” (sakoku, 鎖国) shut off from the outside world, which no Japanese could leave or foreigner enter on pain of death. On the other, Japan the global character: the creative, confused, sometimes brilliant and sometimes bloody phenomenon it's been since its integration into the world's diversity, a journey that continues to this day. Here was the threshold of this transformation.
This, all this, is Hakodate. Wherever you tread, wherever you look and listen, history is in your face and all around you. In Hakodate, more so than anywhere I've been, history is the present.
One thing that makes this so is its geography, which is impossible not to appreciate: for you can tower over it from both ends and grasp the full extent of its physical reality. From either Hakodate-yama – its famous mountain at the peninsula's tip – or the Goryokaku tower deeper inland, this entire unit of humanity compresses itself into your field of view.
|From the north...|
|...and from the south.|
This is a city surrounded on three sides by water, which at the peninsula's narrowest you can stroll across in twenty minutes. A quintessential port: dockyards and seafood and monster crabs and shio ramen and all. From one vantage point, you can weigh with your eyes the sum of its geopolitical and economic weight; and all the key acts – the Black Ships, the trade and development, the climactic battle at the fort – are there in one moment's plain sight, exactly where they occurred.
Who recognizes this guy? I expect Japanese people should, if only because every museum or facility with any connection to nineteenth-century history is sure to have him depicted in incongruously cute, chibi-style cartoons. It's Commodore Matthew Perry of the United States, who arrived at the helm of the Black Ships to demand Japan open up to foreign trade, typically on more enjoyable terms for the foreigners than Japan. Fearing that to refuse would be to get crushed, as was happening to China, the shogunate accepted in the “Japan-US Treaty of Amity and Friendship”; which perhaps would have been more accurately rendered as “Unequal Treaty of Open This Door Or We'll Kill You”.
I have yet to reach a personal verdict on Perry. Was he acting on behalf of an imperialist power, with primary concern for casting further the net of its greed? Or is there truth to those accounts that he took a genuine interest in and concern for Japan, was respectful and balanced in his dealings, and perhaps, sought a genuine friendship between the American and Japanese peoples based on something much worthier than fear, which would benefit both alike? My information is not conclusive enough to let me decide; although today's Japanese, for their part, seem largely to celebrate his role in their story.
For Hakodate, sitting at the epicentre of these changes proved both a threat and opportunity. In many ways it would gain from it: the foreign materials, equipment and thinking that came piling onto its docks transformed it into a laboratory of Japan's modernization, by which it learnt from European and American ways to strengthen its own – and nowhere more so than in the new drive to colonize Hokkaido through modern roads and railways, modern farming, modern industry, modern science, and modern institutionalized repression of indigenous people.
But it was also frightening, reminding Hakodate of its front-row seat for competing great-power hunger in these northern regions, and its vulnerability to foreign aggression and domestic anger alike. And today, one of Hakodate's leading attractions is a project bringing all these threads together: by which the shogunate, worried its colonial magistrate's office under Hakodate-yama was dangerously exposed, decided to move it inland and build a mighty Western-style fort to protect it.
Goryokaku: “five-sided fortification”. Completed in 1864, this was a prime example of rangaku (蘭学) or “Dutch learning”, by which European knowledge was studied and applied for the improvement of, and in concert with, Japanese goals and identity. Guarding the peninsula's broad neck, it was designed in mind of the range and effects of foreign ships' cannons, and in turn sought to send a statement that Japan was strong, was modern enough to stand up to foreign barbarians, and that it was this city, Hakodate, which led this roaring modernization from the front.
All that when its star-shaped fortress inspiration came originally from Renaissance Italy, resembling many similar structures all over the world – including, understandably but to my surprise all the same, in the Guianas, or specifically New Amsterdam in Dutch-controlled Suriname.
And at its centre, the Magistrate's Office itself: for a time, the nerve centre from which Japan directed the colonization of Hokkaido.
This is of course a reconstruction, albeit a painstaking one. So what happened to the original? Well, it wasn't foreign cannons that brought this fortress low.
Japan cascaded into civil war, as disaffected aristocrats and samurai – mostly from marginalized southwestern domains like Chōshū, Satsuma and Tosa (now effectively Yamaguchi, Kagoshima and Kōchi, respectively) – banded together to throw the Tokugawa shogunate from power. Many had been aggrieved ever since their harsh treatment after losing the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600, and their revolution restored direct political supremacy to the Meiji Emperor (whereupon, of course, they stuffed all the important offices with people from their provinces).
However, an alliance of Tokugawa loyalists fought on, retreating north through Tōhoku as the imperial forces pursued them. Rapidly running out of options, they packed onto the remains of their fleet and escaped to Hakodate with their French advisers, where they occupied the city, took the Goryokaku fort as their base, and had this group photo taken as one always does on such occasions.
They were kind of doomed. They tried to establish an independent Republic of Ezo to develop Hokkaido, appealing to Hakodate's foreign consulates for international recognition, and pleading with Japan's new imperial government to let them rule the island as a shogunate remnant on the emperor's behalf. But this was refused, and soon the imperial forces came, sending commandos up the back of Hakodate-yama and digging in round the city. At last they assaulted Goryokaku fort, where the Tokugawa loyalists made their final stand. Their defeat and surrender ended the war, completed the Meiji revolution, brought down the curtain on two hundred and fifty years of Tokugawa rule, and raised it on the era which laid the foundations of Japan today.
With the Battle of Hakodate concluded, and later the rise of Sapporo, the magistrate's office became redundant. What remained of it was torn down in 1871, with the fort grounds eventually becoming a park. Later on they would restore a replica of the office, and most recently of all build Goryokaku Tower, giving visitors panoramic views across the region and conferring upon them its history. Once built to scare the outsiders, it now draws them in by the bus-load.
If one thing surprised me most, it was the portrayal of those shogunate loyalists. They say that history is written by the winners, and winners the last Tokugawa authorities certainly weren't. They've been portrayed as weak, ineffective, reactionary, cowardly under foreign pressure, repressive and insensitive to their nation's angers and pains. But in today's Hakodate, these final remnants of their time at the helm of Japan get their stories told a lot more sympathetically – and downright heroically.
This is Toshizō Hijikata, whose stoic and sombre figure recurs on about two thirds of every leaflet, wall and signboard in Goryokaku. From how he's presented, he comes across as a kind of End-of-the-Shogunate Severus Snape; a talented specialist fighter, mean-spirited, often as hard-hearted and violent as his circumstances, but ultimately a courageous hero who fought with loyalty to the last. A founder of the shogunate's Shinsengumi special police in Kyoto, he fled with the loyalist fleet to Hakodate and took part in its occupation and defence. When the imperial forces attacked, he launched a desperate charge to recapture the city, but was shot and killed as he rode into battle.
His valour, and that of the others defeated in the Battle of Hakodate, is something Goryokaku wants no-one to miss.
What should we read from these portrayals? Evidently, human wars tend to be nasty affairs with heroism and brutality alike on all sides participating. Is there anything particularly Japanese about respecting those who lose with honour, who fight to the end even when knowing they cannot win? Or is this just part of our basic humanity, a recognition that you can respect a person's courage and defiance of fear even if you disagree with what they stand for? How much might it have to do with certain later Japanese experiences, and in the light of that, how far is it a good or bad thing?
There's no limit to how far we can reflect on this, of course. But if there's one thing to take from it, I would say it should be the reminder that there are always multiple sides to every story. The winners have the duty to equally accommodate the losers in the writing of history, because only by understanding all different perspectives can any lessons be learnt. And we can understand: because those are humans on the other side, just like ourselves, and just like ourselves, they hurt when they bleed.
And let nobody play politics with this or think it applies more to some than others, or refers to specific historical episodes. It doesn't. It applies equally to every person, and every country, in every time.
|And so does the appeal of this.|
A walk around the city attests still more to the transformation. The foreign influences Hakodate was forced to welcome, ended up an outstanding part of its identity it still displays today. In that regard, it leads the way in exemplifying that blend of inputs that came to define Hokkaido: and aware of this, it has actively preserved a lot of that era's fixings.
For example, the red-brick warehouses, now containing a bustling shopping centre...
...the 1910 Chinese Memorial hall...
...the Old British Consulate...
...and the Old Public Hall, whose construction and purpose as the ward assembly hall was a 100% Japanese affair.
There are also churches, including a Catholic church and Russian Orthodox church; a foreigner's cemetery; and the city's venerable streetcar (tram) network, which though modernized still runs a vintage tramcar for tourists.
And here's a provocative pair of present-day expressions of Japan's relationship with Russia, a hundred years after their last major fisticuffs. The monument of Japanese-Russian friendship; and an especially friendly board at the top of the mountain.
The latter of course refers to the Kuril Islands, the subject of a tiresome ownership squabble over many decades. Topical, as in the very week of this trip, hours of TV news time were devoted to separate island disputes between Japan and each of its neighbours, one by one – mostly over uninhabited rocks.
All these countries need to calm down. These are islands: extensions of the Earth, and the Earth owns itself. Hysterical nationalisms and swaggering political gestures over such things discredit any nation expressing them, and will only hurt everybody. What matters is to understand one another's perspectives, and work with the aim of satisfying everybody – not swinging the national genitals around with “tough, this is our land and we're better than you”. The record of this whole region gives nobody in it the right to get drunk on national pride.
My exploration turned into a multi-mile hike beneath a merciless sun, all the way out to Cape Tachimachi (from Ainu yokoushi, “the place where people stand and catch fish”,) at Hakodate's southern tip.
The final order of business was to take the ropeway up Hakodate-yama. I've mentioned the strategic and historic qualities of the view from the top, but today it's the commercial aspect that dominates. The panorama of Hakodate at night is one of the world's most famous cityscapes: and thus the city cashes in with a giant visitors' centre at the peak, complete with shops, restaurant, aggressive souvenir-photo salesmen, and balconies where hundreds of visitors at a time can crush themselves in like sardines to watch Hakodate before the setting sun.
And so was Hakodate where I came to the end of my own Hokkaido voyage – though I wonder if that voyage itself may be just the beginning. Nonetheless, for now it was time to head back south, to reflect on all I had found. Coming next: the return leg of the journey down the east of Tōhoku, with a delve into curious traditions in the woods and sulphur of deeper Miyagi.
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