Japan for History Geeks

It has been a while since I’ve taught a world history survey course, but I do remember that one of my favorite lessons was about the Meiji Restoration in Japan.

What was that? Let’s start at the beginning. In medieval times, the emperor of Japan was a prisoner in his own palace in Kyoto. Though he was still considered a god in the Shinto religion, and though he was too holy to touch the ground, his divinity meant nothing politically and economically for 675 years. From 1192 to 1867, the military dictator who collected taxes, made treaties, and governed was called the shogun. And it benefitted the shogun to keep the emperor holed up in his palace. Now, it is a nice palace, as you can see below. Maybe a little cold in winter, but nice. Still, it was still a prison.

Japan history tour Himeji Nijo Castle Imperial Palace tour by Jennifer Hallock author of Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series. Serious history. Serious sex. Happily ever after.
The photo on the left is the throne room of the Imperial Palace in Kyoto. In the shadows, you can still see the thrones, which will be moved to Tokyo soon because the emperor is stepping down in favor of his son. On the right is the emperor’s privacy tent in his living quarters. Does that tatami mat look super thick? Why, yes, because it’s for the emperor!

The shogun was meant to keep peace amongst all the daimyo, or feudal lords, each who had their own stable of knights, or samurai. But battles still happened. Fortified homes were still needed, like the one at Himeji, Japan’s most beautiful surviving castle.

Japan history tour Himeji Nijo Castle Imperial Palace tour by Jennifer Hallock author of Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series. Serious history. Serious sex. Happily ever after.

(Note: Though most people focus on just the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War II, the United States Army Air Corps actually destroyed an additional 64 cities in this war, killing 333,000 people and making 15 million homeless. According to the Himeji tour, about 2/3 of the city itself was destroyed, but the single firebomb that landed on the roof of the castle failed to detonate. Luck? Check out the fish below to find out.)

Japan history tour Himeji Nijo Castle Imperial Palace tour by Jennifer Hallock author of Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series. Serious history. Serious sex. Happily ever after.
Inside Himeji Castle’s wooden interior. On the right, see one of the double doors, a key piece of protection for when you are fighting in feudal times. You can open the door to let a few warriors out without getting a whole slew of attackers coming in. Hey, that’s useful. Maybe I’ll install one here in New Hampshire.
Japan history tour Himeji Nijo Castle Imperial Palace tour by Jennifer Hallock author of Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series. Serious history. Serious sex. Happily ever after.
At the corner of each portion of the roof, you will see a flying fish (left picture). This one is several hundred years old and has been preserved for visitors to see close up. These were meant to protect the castle from fire. Was that the reason the incendiary bomb did not go off in World War II? Being traditionally-clad courtiers, Stephen and I (on the right) think so.
Japan history tour Himeji Nijo Castle Imperial Palace tour by Jennifer Hallock author of Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series. Serious history. Serious sex. Happily ever after.
A view of the main castle from the expanded quarters of Princess Sen and her family.
Japan history tour Himeji Nijo Castle Imperial Palace tour by Jennifer Hallock author of Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series. Serious history. Serious sex. Happily ever after.
On the left is a hole in the defensive wall tall enough for archers to maneuver and aim. They can lean left or right to follow their targets. There are also square, triangle, and circle holes that serve the same purpose, but for guns. On the right, the visitor can see roof tiles dedicated to the ruling family. Himeji changed hands several times, and each family added a new symbol to the roof.

The shogun was best when he kept the daimyo from fighting each other, but the farther away he lived, the harder it was for him to keep the peace. Where did he live? It depended upon where the home base of the shogun’s clan and was. For the powerful Tokugawa Shogunate, this meant Edo, or Tokyo. He did have to visit Kyoto on occasion, though, so he needed a private residence here: Nijo Castle.

Japan history tour Himeji Nijo Castle Imperial Palace tour by Jennifer Hallock author of Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series. Serious history. Serious sex. Happily ever after.
The beautiful copper and wood roof of Nijo Castle.

When you visit Nijo Castle, ironically, you can see the end of the shogun’s power. When Commodore Perry of the US Navy forcibly opened Japan to unconstrainted Western trade and exploration, it could have spelled an end to the country’s independence. China was carved into spheres of influence, and some in Japan feared the same for them. The European powers were taking rival sides at court, some backing the emperor and others backing the shogun and daimyo.

Unlike other countries in world history, though, the Japanese realized that a civil war would only benefit foreigners. The emperor (who was only 17), his advisors, and the shogun worked out a compromise, restoring political and military power to the emperor. The edict of the Meiji Restoration (1867) was proclaimed from this very room in Nijo Castle. Today you can see models of the shogun, his bodyguard, and his loyal supporters, all ready to welcome the emperor. Yay, the emperor can leave his house now!

Japan history tour Himeji Nijo Castle Imperial Palace tour by Jennifer Hallock author of Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series. Serious history. Serious sex. Happily ever after.

This was the moment that changed everything for Japan. Soon education became universal, Western (“Dutch”) science and technology were accepted, and the military was modernized. Within a few decades, Japan became an imperial power itself. Now, that did not go so well for lots of people, especially after the military rose to power again: the defeat of Russia in 1905 (which led to a revolution there), the colonization of Korea and Taiwan, the invasion of China, the Nanking Massacre, the invasion of Southeast Asia, the Pacific War, and so on. Hence the firebombing mentioned above. But I digress…

The point is that we saw lots of history. It was great.

Young Love in Japan

If you believe Mr. Hallock, the Japanese celebrate Christmas like Valentine’s Day. You still have to go to work, but you get to eat chocolate—and celebrate young love! As a romance author, I felt right at home.

young love japan photo by Jennifer Hallock author of Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series. Serious history. Serious sex. Happily ever after.
Couples making a wish at Yasaka Koshin-Do in Kyoto, Japan. Sewn pouches called “good faith monkeys” have their hands and feet bound together outside a statue of the guardian warrior, Shomen Kongo. This restraint reflects the binding of a single desire in order to have the guardian grant your other wishes. On Christmas Eve, the temple was full of couples binding their desires together. It may not be your idea of a romantic date, but there are plenty of Japanese who would disagree with you.
young love japan photo by Jennifer Hallock author of Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series. Serious history. Serious sex. Happily ever after.
A couple getting a photo in underneath Himeji Castle in the Kokoen Garden.
young love japan photo by Jennifer Hallock author of Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series. Serious history. Serious sex. Happily ever after.
Carriages take lovers through the Bamboo Forest in Arashiyama on Christmas Day.
young love japan photo by Jennifer Hallock author of Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series. Serious history. Serious sex. Happily ever after.
On the streets in Gion, tradition mixes with modernity. I did not want to be that person foisting my camera lens in people’s faces, but I could not help it.

A few years ago, it was reported that record numbers of Japanese are forgoing marriage for career and lifestyle. They may have chosen “happy for now” over “happily ever after,” but they are still living and loving.

Christmas in Japan with the Hallocks

After the passing of our beloved dogs, Mr. Hallock and I decided that we needed to travel before we adopted any more animals. (Well, just one pooch at a time. That’s our limit, I swear. I’ll let you know.)

Where to go for our first voyage? Japan! (Mr. H spent the very best years of his childhood living in Kobe, so there was a nostalgic element here. For my part, I just love the food.)

Japan travel photo Jennifer Hallock author of Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series. Serious history. Serious sex. Happily ever after.
Christmas Eve shopping in the Ninenzaka and Sannen-zaka preserved districts of Kyoto.

A Buddhist/Shinto country may seem an odd choice for Christmas, but it was perfect for two Americans seeking an escape from the heavy pressure of the holiday in the States.

Japan travel photo Jennifer Hallock author of Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series. Serious history. Serious sex. Happily ever after.
A parade of Japanese Santas on motorbikes was a rare treat in Kyoto.

Not that Christmas is any less commercial in Japan. It may be more so. They have accepted all the fun stuff—Santa, big meals, and general jolliness—without expectations or drama. For us, that was a welcome escape.

Japan travel photo Jennifer Hallock author of Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series. Serious history. Serious sex. Happily ever after.
On Christmas Day, Santa guided us to the bamboo gardens of Arashiyama on the eastern edge of Kyoto.

Mr. Hallock postulates that the Japanese view Christmas sorta like Valentine’s Day: you won’t get the day off work, but you have a good excuse to eat chocolate.

Japan travel photo Jennifer Hallock author of Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series. Serious history. Serious sex. Happily ever after.
The tradition in Japan is cake with strawberries. I approve. But a scarce harvest has left the fruit more expensive than ever. I saw a box of 20 gorgeously presented white and red strawberries for $100. That’s $5 a berry. These cakes are not cheap, either, at $5 a piece.

I wonder if the popularity of Christmas is due to Santa’s suit. In Japan, red is the traditional color of joy, happiness, and good fortune. White means truth and new beginnings. White has an ambivalent message, in fact, because it is the color used for both funerals and imperial regalia, such as the emperor’s tatami mat edging at the palace in Kyoto. Red and white are the two colors of the Japanese flag and the Santa-image-shaping Coca-Cola Company. Had Santa’s suit been another color (or soot-colored like the famous poem by Clement Clarke Moore), would it have still caught on?

Japan travel photo Jennifer Hallock author of Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series. Serious history. Serious sex. Happily ever after.
Santa’s helpers selling delicious treats in the mall. These full cakes are about $30-$40 each.
Japan travel photo Jennifer Hallock author of Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series. Serious history. Serious sex. Happily ever after.
Or how about a little Christmas fritter? This is more my price range.
Japan travel photo Jennifer Hallock author of Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series. Serious history. Serious sex. Happily ever after.
But, really, what says Christmas more than a $12 apple? It seems they grew the fruit with a sticker over it to discolor the skin. Cool, huh? Not cool enough for $12, but cool.
Japan travel photo Jennifer Hallock author of Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series. Serious history. Serious sex. Happily ever after.
I just had to finish with this one. Mr. H and I have our own tradition born the first year of marriage. We were living in West Beirut—the Muslim half of a multicultural town—and everything was open for the holiday. And Beirut’s Santa (yes, there was one) sold pizza! We weren’t much of cooks back then so we bought the pizza, and it was delicious. We have eaten a Christmas pizza every year since, and I guess that we are not the only ones! (We did not eat this piece from the picture, though. Eww.)

There will be more Japan posts to come. Themes will include Hello Kitty, good food, sewer drains, and much, much more. I don’t know what is better than cool sewer drains, but trust me I’ll find it.