Sendai came as a surprise. After dawn-to-dusk train rides through the open fields of Tōhoku, all of a sudden there erupted this massive metropolis, and for a moment I felt as though I was back in central Tokyo (or one of the dozen central Tokyos).
Here was a serious city, and one identifiably of the South: the heat had returned with a vengeance, the humidity sweltered off the scales, and the trains became more crowded – and their occupants more grim in the face – in proportion to the southerly distance covered.
Sendai's image, captured in a train station window: giant Tanabata star festival streamers; Matsushima, to which we will return; and who is that fellow at the top with the crescent-shaped crest?
It doesn't take long to catch on that he and his headgear are something of an icon in the Sendai area. His contemporary guise as Miyagi's mascot – visible everywhere – seems to have altered his head to look like an onigiri, but still he stands on the governor's shoulder and scrutinizes everything.
He is the “one-eyed dragon”, Date Masamune (伊達 政宗), his image celebrated as though the city owes him its very existence – which might not be far from the truth. His story is a fascinating prism of Japan's chaotic age of inner conflict, and even more so of the different view of it you get from a tenacious Tōhoku perspective.
What can be established is that Masamune was a regional statesman from the late 16th century – Japan's Warring States Period – from a distinguished line of daimyo, who founded what evolved into modern Sendai and in so doing secured prime place in the region's history. Museums across the region eagerly give accounts of his life story and churn out Date Masamune souvenirs, especially at the sites of places he built or did important or miscellaneous things. As with the Tokugawa shoguns at Nikkō, there are no few people making grand amounts of money off him today.
There is even the claim, though I cannot substantiate it, that his armour inspired the design of Darth Vader. Who would have guessed?
All accounts point to his loss of an eye in childhood, most likely to smallpox. This made him a victim of prejudice, shunned and humiliated even by his own mother. By the rendition of his personal museum in Matsushima (from where these wax portrayals come), among others, he trained extremely hard as both a Confucian and Buddhist scholar and a warrior.
What the accounts also share is that in 1581, at 15 years old, Masamune took to the battlefield with his father, cutting his teeth on an invading clan from a neighbouring domain and winning considerable respect. These inter-domain rivalries and violent power games became Masamune's setting and defining influence: most of all with his dad's assassination, right in front of him, in 1584.
Already the subject of fear in neighbouring domains, this event apparently enraged Masamune and stripped him of restraint. At the helm of the Date clan at 18 years old, he led his forces to crush the family's enemies one by one, achieving dominance over a great proportion of southern Tōhoku.
Enter Toyotomi Hideyoshi, whose unpleasant attention fell on Masamune's conquests. Some call Hideyoshi a Japanese national hero, credited with the unification of Japan, like Oda Nobunaga before him and Tokugawa Ieyasu after. I call him a reprehensible butcher whose megalomania plunged his country into a cruel and bloodthirsty war in Korea amid fantasies of conquering Ming China – Japan's only invasion of a foreign country until three hundred years later, and notably of the very same countries.
In any case, Hideyoshi's campaigns had made him the most powerful lord in Japan at this stage, and Masamune's defeat of one of his client clans made him cross. Suspicious and worried at Masamune's growing strength, Hideyoshi – already seeking to bring the north under his rule – gave undivided attention to bringing Masamune into line.
As such, Masamune was left in the unenviable dilemma of defending his pride at the head of an independent domain, on the one hand, and convincing Hideyoshi not to kill him on the other. Somehow, and no doubt solidifying his reputation as a masterful pragmatist, he did enough to convince Hideyoshi, who set about placing the north under ruthless social and economic repression – reallocating land to his lackeys, confiscating weapons, and imposing strict class structures. Masamune only pulled this off by suppressing a rebellion of his own furious people, travelling twice to prostrate himself before Hideyoshi while fully expecting to be killed, and even allowing Hideyoshi to dispatch him to fight in the mad Korean campaign.
At last Hideyoshi died, leaving his successors to squabble with the rising Tokugawas for power. Here Masamune sided with the Tokugawas, who defeated their enemies at the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600 and finally unified Japan under the shogunate (which eventually got finished off in Hakodate two and a half centuries later).
Historical memories often admire tough all-rounders, who excel as much in peace as in war, and they found plenty of fuel for this in Masamune, too. With the domains solidified and fighting no longer permitted, Tokugawa Ieyasu had him return to Tōhoku as the daimyo of – no doubt thanks to his earlier conquests – the mighty and prosperous Sendai Domain. Naturally Ieyasu was suspicious of him as we all are, and embezzled plenty of Sendai's rice down to Edo (Tokyo), but for the most part Sendai seems to have done well out of the new order.
Here Masamune is credited for his most abiding achievements: taking the little fishing village of Sendai and – along with his series of sons – turning it into the grandest city in northern Japan. As daimyo he built Sendai Castle upon Mount Aoba along with a number of great shrines and temples, developed Sendai as a castle town around it, and apparently proceeded to do all of the following things:
-Tour extensively around the area to gain direct experience of people's lifestyles, and institute agricultural controls, business management policies and civil engineering projects to turn Sendai into Japan's leading rice producer with cutting-edge social and economic self-mastery;
-Take special interest in forestry, mining, salt production, metalwork, horse-rearing and various light industries, and pour great effort into these sectors in Sendai as well;
-Become a fine patron of the arts such as poetry, calligraphy, Noh and the tea ceremony, as well as of ethics and foreign culture, including Christianity until it was banned by the shogunate (and that's another story).
-Visit the moon by bicycle, implement a successful fisheries programme on Saturn, invent a fully functional helicopter only to lose the schematics during his construction of Japan's first golf course – well, alright, maybe not. But if we're going this fast in this direction, I'm inclined to wait for some corroborating sources before stating anything as possible fact.
There is one crazy initiative of his that does seem to hold up however: the construction of a galleon, based on European shipbuilding techniques, which he sent with emissaries all the way to Rome via Spanish-consumed Mexico to say hello to the Pope. And apparently they got there, in Japan's first exploration around the world. However, although they were well treated, neither the king of Spain nor the Pope were willing to give them trade links with Mexico or send missionaries to Sendai, as Masamune desired – perhaps because of what they were hearing about the prohibitions against Christianity in Japan, which in turn was largely because of the kind of things Christianity had done in Mexico. Nonetheless it must have been one hell of a voyage.
So how do we evaluate the record of Date Masamune? On the one hand Sendai appears to take quite some pride in him, as its founder and iconic regional hero. On the other, his tale gives cause for ethical scrutiny in plenty of places, such as the killing of his brother in peculiar circumstances, his conquering ways when his age was the same as mine at the time of writing, and of course the things he was willing to compromise to placate Hideyoshi – I would like to know exactly what he got up to in Korea, for example. As with Hideyoshi himself and a certain calamity we may know of called Qin Shi Huang, a founding role is no excuse for crimes against humanity.
I lack evidence to suspect Masamune of that, and shall withhold a personal conclusion until I know more about him. An interesting character, though. One to keep an eye on.
And not the only hero of Tōhoku, according to his museum. Masamune's museum is having none of this “backward, forlorn Tōhoku” business: behind the mounted daimyo in the hall of entry stand likenesses of forty-five eminent personages, the 'Great Men of Northern Japan' – and only one or two Great Women – who grew from Tōhoku's six prefectures to achieve great things for Japan.
'Great' here means many things. This line-up includes a century and a half's worth of politicians, soldiers and sailors, writers and poets, scholars and linguists, entrepreneurs, musicians, doctors, dissidents, sportsmen, scientists, photographers, and even an Antarctic explorer with penguins.
'Great' may also expand onto the dodgier part of the ethical spectrum. I recall at least one of the military fellows lurking therein is described as having refused to support the Japanese surrender at the end of World War II – and there are quite a few things that could mean.
And outside, who should I find wandering about on the road but the man of the moment himself?
I hastily conducted a brief interview, and although my Japanese was still inadequate to grill him on awkward questions surrounding his career, I at least secured his opinion, recorded on iPhone, that Toyotomi Hideyoshi was indeed a very bad person.
When Masamune-san is not clanking through the streets inspecting the modern historiography of himself – and towelling at his forehead, surely baking in the oven of his armour in this roasting summer – he would seem to spend most of his time here.
This is the zuihōden, Masamune's mausoleum, where he and his son and grandson retired when all was done. For so important a facility of so important a person, it stands in surprising seclusion, a little way out of the centre of Sendai on one of its forested hills.
If you're perceptive, you might notice something is not quite right. Hold that thought.
And just to the north across the river is Mount Aoba itself, the site of Sendai Castle, Gokoku Shrine and another concentration of greenery that adds to the “city of trees” nickname. The slopes and roads were a bit shaken up by the March 2011 earthquake, but the summit is still accessible, from where the cornerstone of Masamune's work looks out over Sendai city.
Notice something missing?
Yes – there's no castle. And if you'd suspected the shrine and mausoleums were reconstructions, you'd have been right.
Date Masamune's story goes on long beyond his death. After surviving more than three hundred years of earthquakes, violent conflicts and political upheaval, the daimyo's castle, mausoleum and assorted works, along with most of the city and its famous trees, were burnt to ashes in the American obliteration of Sendai in World War II. The incendiary bombing (and consequent fires) of July 1945 not only targeted and slaughtered thousands of Sendai's residents by some of the most agonizing methods imaginable, but robbed the city of its essential heritage.
The big angry World War II debates have gone on ever since that conflict ended, and likely will for some time yet, not least as concerns the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But the firebombing of civilian and cultural targets in practically every major Japanese city receives less attention, which may be curious considering how many more hundreds of thousands of people it massacred, and how it had none of the nuclear attacks' strategic value save for in the sorts of strategies used only by demons of the most unconscionable order.
In the least, it must be considered equally barbaric as the crimes against humanity committed by Japanese forces in China and elsewhere; and right now we may also compare it to the demolition of the heritage of Timbuktu by the fanatics who currently occupy that city. For a human there are no excuses, whoever your enemies are and whatever their crimes; destroy our common heritage, and it is you it reflects upon.
As yet, no-one has been held to account, least of all General “Order of the Rising Sun, First Class” Curtis LeMay who orchestrated the whole affair. Why does this matter? Because without learning lessons and improving the ethics of our species, it was hardly a surprise that the same manner of atrocities – i.e. slaughtering people and trying to get away with it by erecting these feeble “good guys versus bad guys” narratives – were repeated again and again, from Vietnam and Latin America to Iraq.
'You believe that your side has suffered an injustice, and the other side are the aggressors. Nobody ever goes to war thinking they're the ones at fault. Neither side is lying; both sides believe they are in the right. Believing to be the side of justice opposing cruelty, both sides slaughter the other, feeling justified in their own cruelty.'
-A wise character who, for the sake of not provoking an altogether different debate I want to deal with later on, shall remain anonymous.
Let's drop all our national superiority complexes and reflect as a common species for once, and stop making misery for our people and heritage over and over again.
Sendai recovered. With doubtless a lot of struggle and effort, its survivors rebuilt it into the lively metropolis we find there today, still raising its voice to tell the rest of Japan – and the world – that there is much more to Tōhoku than is easy to think. And it does this even as it struggles to recover yet again, this time from the 2011 Triple Disaster, which bludgeoned its port and surrounding coastline without mercy.
My northern voyage was soon to conclude amidst the haunting pines of Matsushima. There, I came my closest yet to the epicentre of that which so recently traumatized Japan's self-consciousness, and has hung over all my experiences of this country since I came here. More on that, and my lasting reflections on all that I found, to come in the final instalment.
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