Isaac Meyer

Historian, teacher, podcaster

Episode 271 – You’re Going on the List

This week, we cover the fascinating tale of Sei Shonagon and the Makura no Soushi, or Pillow Book. Why is a collection of anecdotes considered to be one of Japan’s greatest literary classics? What makes the Pillow Book so famous? And why does Isaac love it so very much?


Henitiuk, Valerie. Worlding Sei Shonagon: The Pillow Book in Translation.

Sato, Hiroaki. Legends of the Samurai.

Ivanova, Gergana. Unbinding the Pillow Book: The Many Lives of a Japanese Classic.


Sei Shonagon views the snow in Yamato province, by Utagawa. A Tokugawa era woodblock print.

Sei Shonagon as depicted in a mid-Edo woodblock print.

Sei Shonagon, from the late Edo woodblock print series “Six Fashionable Female Poetic Immortals.” I think she would have adored being described with all those words.

Sei Shonagon with her poem from the Hyakunin Isshu (no. 62) above.

Sei Shonagon became one of the most famous women in Japanese history, justifying her inclusion in this series of woodblocks by Utagawa Kunisada I: A Mirror of the Renowned Exemplary Women of Japan.

Episode 270 – A Brief and Fleeting Dream

This week, we cover the life and work of one of Japan’s most famous authors: the 11th century courtier Murasaki Shikibu. Why do we know so little about who she was? What inspired her to write Genji? Why do I dislike her work so viscerally? And how did it become so famous?


Shriane, Haruo, editor. Envisioning the Tale of Genji: Media, Gender, and Cultural Production.

Shirane, Haruo. A Bridge of Dreams: The Poetics of the Tale of Genji.

Bowring, Richard, trans. The Diary of Lady Murasaki.


For Edo period Japanese who did not want to slog through the original classical Japanese, there were emaki — illustrated versions — of the story of Genji. This scene is from Azumaya,, chapter 50 of the tale.

Another emaki of Genji, this one from the Takekawa chapter. A male courtier (bottom right) steals a glimpse of some lovely ladies.

Cover piece from Nise Murasaki Inaka Genji.

A cover from the manga edition of Genji Monogatari.

Murasaki Shikibu gazes at the moon, being inspired to write the tale of Genji.

In addition to writing Genji, Murasaki Shikibu was also an accomplished poet. One of her poems is included in the Ogura Hyakunin Isshu, probably the most famous poetry collection in Japan. Her poem (no. 57), as translated by LingWiki: “Meeting on the path / but I cannot clearly know / if it was he / because the midnight moon / in a cloud had disappeared.
This illustrated version shows Murasaki, along with her poem written in phonetic kana above. No contemporary pictures of her exist; she’s labeled as Murasaki, and is wearing purple (the color Murasaki), and that’s how you can tell it’s her.

Episode 269 – The Revolution Will Not Be Live

This week, we cover the little-known “Chichibu Incident,” an uprising against the Meiji government in 1884 that saw several thousand people take up arms against the state. Where did it come from? How did the rebellion fare? And what is its connection to the broader trends of Japanese history?


Bowen, Roger W. Rebellion and Democracy in Meiji Japan.

Siniawer, Eiko. Ruffians, Yakuza, Nationalists: The Violent Politics of Modern Japan.

Steele, M. William. Alternative Narratives in Modern Japanese History.


Tashiro Eisuke, party secretary of the Poor People’s Party (Konminto)

A monument to the Chichibu Incident. At the time decried as treason, the event is now more often viewed as a genuine popular uprising against a government that was not considerate regarding the hardships its policies inflicted.

Another monument to the incident. Note the leaders to the right (Tashiro is the one standing).

Kinsenji, a Buddhist temple in Chichibu, holds the grave of Tashiro Eisuke. He was captured by the government and executed for treason.

A Japanese-language map of the incident, from a local museum.

Episode 268 – The Right thing for the Wrong Reasons

Today, we cover one of the most unusual stories of WWII: the policy of saving and protecting Jews pursued by some among Japan’s military leadership. How did anti-semitic ideas about a global conspiracy convince some in Japan that the Jews could be their allies? How many were saved? And what does it all mean?


Goodman, David and Masanori Miyazawa. Jews in the Japanese Mind: The History and Uses of a Cultural Stereotype.

Shillony, Ben-Ami. Jews & The Japanese

Gao, Bei. Shanghai Sanctuary: Chinese and Japanese Policy Toward European Jews


The synagogue in Harbin, Manchuria
children in Shanghai during the Second World War

One of the main streets of the Shanghai Ghetto in 1943.
This image gives you some idea of how cramped living space was in the Shanghai Ghetto. 
Polish refugees arriving in Shanghai
Yasue Norihiro, one of the two leading men behind the initiative to protect Jews within Japan
Inuzuka Koreshige, also a leader in the initiative to protect Jews within the empire
Despite having been proven a forgery back in the 1920s, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion remains a go-to for anti-semites in Japan and around the world. This edition was edited by Japanese anti-semite Ota Ryu in the 1990s. 

Episode 267 – Do Not Give Up Your Life

This week, we cover poet and political activist Yosano Akiko in her drift from icon of the political left to polemicist for the ultranationalist right. What kind of life trajectory drives a person that way? Why did she follow that path? And why did she write so many poems about breasts?


Garon, Sheldon. Molding Japanese Minds: The State in Everyday Life

Dollase, Hiromi Tsuchiya. “Awakening Female Sexuality in Yosano Akiko’s Midaregami.Simply Haiku: Autumn, 2005.

Rabson, Steve. “Yosano Akiko on War: To Give One’s Life or Not: A Question of Which War.” The Journal of the Association of Teachers of Japanese 25, No. 1., Special Issue: Yosano Akiko.

Larson, Phyllis Hyland. “Yosano Akiko and the Re-Creation of the Female Self: An Autogynography.” From the same edition of the above journal.


Yosano Akiko as a younger woman.

Yosano Tekkan in his prime. To be fair, he’s quite a looker, though I’m not sure he’s 400 poems-worth of good looking.

Yosano Akiko later in life.

Though one of Yosano Akiko’s missions was to push for women to not just be valued for motherhood, she herself was quite the mother — to 13 children!

Yosano Akiko and Yosano Tekkan together early in their marriage.

Though like so much else of old Tokyo, the Yosano home is no longer standing, there is a nice little monument on its former site.

Episode 266 – In the Realm of the Gods

This week, we take a look at the bizarre history of a single text — Senkyou Ibun, or Strange Tidings from Another World — and the two people responsible for creating it: the famous scholar Hirata Atsutane, and a boy named Torakichi who claimed to have lived in Japan’s spirit world.


The majority of this episode is based on sources from:

Hansen, Wilburn N. When Tengu Talk: Hirata Atsutane’s Ethnography of the Other World.

and Hansen’s other work on the subject:

Hansen, Wilburn N. “The Medium is the Message: Hirata Atsutane’s Ethnography of the World Beyond.” History of Religions 46, No. 4 (May 2006), 337-372


A “crow tengu” statue. Depictions of tengu are not consistent (other than having some kind of wings).

Atsutane as drawn by one of his own pupils.

Text and diagrams from one of Atsutane’s earlier works, Tama no Mihashira (True Pillars of the Spirit), published 1811. By 1820, Atsutane was a respected scholar with a large volume of published work.

Senkyou Ibun is not only text; Atsutane hired artists to draw some of the things depicted in it. This is the Shichishoumai, the seven lives dance, being performed by the Tengu.

Episode 265 – The House Always Wins

This week, we cover the life of real estate mogul and international gambling sensation Kashiwagi Akio. Who was he? How did he become an internationally famous gambler? Why was he mysteriously murdered? And how the hell does none other than Donald Trump fit into this?


Los Angeles Times obituary for Kashiwagi, written one month after his death.

The Whale that Nearly Drowned the Donald,” A Politico piece on the Trump-Kashiwagi showdown.

New York Times piece on the murder.


One of very few images of Kashiwagi Akio I have been able to find. I couldn’t find any of his home, either. The man was VERY private.

The Trump Taj Mahal in 1990 with its namesake. Kashiwagi’s two part showdown with Trump in this very hotel made the papers, but the publicity was not enough to save Trump’s operations in Atlantic City.

Police search the interior of “Castle Kashiwagi” for clues. Note the wall section in the background. Also, this is literally the only photo I could find of any part of the house — Kashiwagi took his privacy seriously!

Episode 264- The Man of Legend

This week, we cover the story and legacy of the great warrior Kusunoki Masashige. Why does he have the unique distinction of a statue on the grounds of the emperor’s palace in Tokyo? What do we actually know about him?


McCullough, Hellen Craig (translator). Taiheiki: A Chronicle of Medieval Japan

Sato, Hiroaki. Legends of the Samurai.

Brownlee, John S. Japanese Historians and the National Myths, 1600-1945


The Siege of Chihaya, as depicted in an Edo period print by Ichijusai Yoshikazu. Despite his ultimate defeat, Masashige’s stand here was the start of his legend as a valiant warleader.

The siege of Akasaka Castle.

The battle of Minatogawa, by Utagawa Kuniyoshi.

Another scene from Utagawa’s rendering of the battle of Minatogawa.

The aforementioned statue

Episode 263 – Their Eyes Were Watching the Gods, Part 2

This week; the zenith of Omoto, its fall, and its postwar rebirth. Plus, what have we learned?


Stalker, Nancy. Prophet Motive: Deguchi Onisaburo, Omoto, and the Rise of New Religions in Imperial Japan. 

Garon, Sheldon. Molding Japanese Minds.


A newspaper article on the first Omoto Incident (1921)

Deguchi Onisaburo in Mongolia.

Ruins of the 2nd Omoto Incident. This photo of a former Omoto Shrine was taken in 1950.

A Tokyo Asahi Shinbun feature on Onisaburo’s trial, from 1936.

Onisaburo as an old man.

Omoto’s internationalism remains an important part of the religion, even as the majority of its believers are still in Japan. This photo, from 1975, shows Omoto priests performing a service in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City.03

Episode 262 – Their Eyes Were Watching the Gods, Part 1

This week, we tackled the origin of one of Japan’s new religious movements: Oomoto, or The Great Origin. Where did it come from, and how did the unique combination of two very different people with the right set of circumstances lead it to prominence?


Stalker, Nancy. Prophet Motive: Deguchi Onisaburo, Omoto, and the Rise of New Religions in Imperial Japan. 

Garon, Sheldon. Molding Japanese Minds

A publication on the life of Onisaburo by the modern day Omoto movement (Aizen’en)


Deguchi Onisaburo in his prime.

Deguchi Nao towards the end of her life. Being a religious visionary was hard on her.

Deguchi Onisaburo’s 1900 wedding to one of Nao’s daughters (Sumiko). From left to right: Sumiko, Nao, Onisaburo.

Like so much else, the Reikai Monogatari has officially been adapted into a Manga. I have not read it personally, but I have to admit I am curious.

One of Deguchi Onisaburo’s attempts at pottery. To be fair, I am not sure I could do better.

Large calligraphy work like this was a great vehicle for the kind of flamboyant performance artistry Onisaburo enjoyed.

Deguchi Onisaburo’s unique blend of nationalism and internationalism made for strange bedfellows. Even as he praised universalist ideas like the establishment of Esperanto, he was photographed with men like Toyama Mitsuru (center) and Uchida Ryohei (right), major figures in the early Japanese ultranationalist movement.

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