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.

Naughty Hello Kitty

It is time for most of us to go back to work after the holiday, so here’s a little fun to start your new year right. This is part three of my Hallocks in Japan series. (Part one was Christmas in Japan and part two was Will Travel for Food.) But now I have a special treat for you: Hello Kitty!

Hello Kitty in Japan with Jennifer Hallock author of the Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series. Serious sex. Serious history. Happily ever after.
Samurai Hello Kitty (but cute, of course), and Hello Kitty at Fushimi Inari shrine in Kyoto.

Hello Kitty is a 1970s Japanese cartoon character that exemplifies kawaii, or cute culture, in Japan. And she is everywhere. I mean everywhere.

Not just on fancy, branded items, either—but there, for sure. As the photos below show, you can find (clockwise from top left) a Hello Kitty purse (which I did not buy), a Hello Kitty chopsticks trainer for children (which we got as a gift because how awesome?), a Hello Kitty Inoda Coffee store mug (normally I buy a Starbucks city mug, but not this time!), and a series of sake glasses (which I very much regret not buying at the Kyoto airport).

Hello Kitty in Japan with Jennifer Hallock author of the Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series. Serious sex. Serious history. Happily ever after.

But that’s not all, folks. You can have Hello Kitty all throughout your home—even your medicine cabinet. Want Hello Kitty nail clippers? Yep, they’ve got ’em. Hello Kitty cutting board and placemat? Check out the bottom right corner. What about a Hello Kitty air mask to protect you in flu season? (About 10% of people I saw in public transportation wore such masks. Plain white ones, though, not cool Hello Kitty models.) Finally, don’t forget the fresh-butt-feeling you will get from Hello Kitty fruit-scented cleaning wipes. Butterfly approved!

Hello Kitty in Japan with Jennifer Hallock author of the Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series. Serious sex. Serious history. Happily ever after.

Wait a second, Jen. Butt wipes? Let’s go down this My-Melody-rabbit hole for a moment. One of the most innuendo-laden promotions I saw in Japan was Lawson convenience mart’s soup bowl giveaway. Check it out:

Hello Kitty in Japan with Jennifer Hallock author of the Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series. Serious sex. Serious history. Happily ever after.

Check out Hello Kitty and My Melody. Do they look a little, um, surprised? Maybe a touch . . . debauched? Compare this look to erotic Japanese manga, if you do not believe me.

Hello Kitty in Japan with Jennifer Hallock author of the Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series. Serious sex. Serious history. Happily ever after.

What do these not-so-innocent cartoon characters have to do with miso soup bowls (the product being given away)? I have to chalk it up to being one of Japan’s fascinating contrasts: sappy, childish cuteness with an adults-only subliminal message.

Okay, okay, you want more soup, less sex? Then you want to go to the Hello Kitty tea house in the Ninenzaka and Sannen-zaka preserved districts of Kyoto. There you can get Japanese curry and vegetables, served on rice shaped like Hello Kitty’s head! Or a Hello Kitty pancake. Or a Hello Kitty matcha green tea sundae. If gobbling up your cartoon hero does not sound delicious, then you are not a true fan!

Hello Kitty in Japan with Jennifer Hallock author of the Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series. Serious sex. Serious history. Happily ever after.

I am being a little unfair since my own favorite, Snoopy, is almost as popular in Japan as Hello Kitty. It also has its own branded store and cafe in Nishiki Market, Kyoto. Only great restraint (and fiscal prudence) kept me from buying up the entire shop. Look at those adorable Charlie Brown mochi!

Snoopy in Japan with Jennifer Hallock author of the Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series. Serious sex. Serious history. Happily ever after.

Soon, I will take a deeper look into Japanese history and show you around a few of my favorite places. And also sewer drains! Don’t forget the sewer drains. See you soon!