Isaac Meyer

Historian, teacher, podcaster

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Episode 240 – All in the Family, Part 2

This week, we cover the sengoku era history of the Shimazu clan, and their meteoric ascent from  minor lords to major ones in the span of a few decades. Plus, the Tokugawa and the Shimazu, the role of sugar in the Shimazu clan’s fortunes, and the invasion of the Ryukyu islands. It’s a packed episode!


Sansom, George B. A History of Japan, Vol 2. 1334-1615

Turnbull, Stephen. The Samurai Capture a King: Okinawa, 1609.

Turnbull, Stephen. The Samurai: A Military History.

Also, while researching the grounds of some of the castles mentioned in this episode, I came across this fascinating blog that is worth a look.


Shimazu Yoshihiro, the 17th Shimazu family head. Under his generalship, and then his leadership as daimyo, the Shimazu became a major force in Japanese politics.

The Battle of Mimigawa (1578). The crushing defeat of the Otomo clan signaled the rise of the Shimazu as major contenders to rule Kyushu.

Part of the remnants of the earthworks of Kakuto castle.

An armor set which belonged to Shimazu Yoshihiro.

The old provinces of Japan. Satsuma province is at the very bottom (no. 63). Neighboring Osumi (64) was occasionally under Shimazu control as well prior to the Sengoku period.

Compare this map to the locations of Satsuma and Osumi in the previous one and you can see how far the Shimazu came by 1584.

The remnants of Nakijin castle, wiped out in the one major engagement of the Okinawan campaign.

The gravestone of Jana Ueekata, the onl Okinawan to refuse to sign the final treaty of subordination.

Episode 239 – All in the Family, Part 1

This week, we start a short series on the history of one of the most influential fiefdoms in Japanese history (Satsuma) and the family who ruled it (the Shimazu). How did this little chunk of land on the edge of Japan grow to national importance?


A History of Japan to 1334 AND A History of Japan, 1334-1600. 

Turnbull, Stephen. War in Japan, 1467-1615


Toufukuji castle, the first permanent military garrison on Kagoshima. It predates Shimazu clan arrival in the area by about a century.

The site of the meeting between Shimazu Takahisa and Francis Xavier. Working with missionaries was a requirement of obtaining Western style weapons.

Japanese arquebuses. The first islands where the Portuguese arrived (Tanegashima) was within the bounds of Satsuma domain, and Satsuma was one of the first domains to adopt the new weapon.

Shimazu Tadahisa as a monk. At the end of his long tenure as family head and daimyo, the Shimazu were in a far better position than they had been previously.

The old provinces of Japan. Satsuma province is at the very bottom (no. 63). Neighboring Osumi (64) was occasionally under Shimazu control as well prior to the Sengoku period.

Episode 238 – Hell is Empty

This week, we tackle the evils of Unit 731 — its history, its experiments, and its ultimate escape from any real justice.


A New York Times article from the 1990s on Unit 731.

Japan Times article on the trial of Yutaka Mio.

Gold, Hal. Unit 731 Testimony.

Tanaka, Yuki. Hidden Horrors


Note: There will be no images of human experiments here. They are out there if you want to find them. 

The Unit 731 compound in Pingfang.

Ishii Shiro.

Otozo Yamada, a Kwantung Army commander and defendant at the Khabarovsk trials in 1949.

Episode 237 – Princess, Lover, Soldier, Spy

This week, we take on the scintillating story of the Manchurian princess Kawashima Yoshiko, who grew up in Japan before becoming an agent for Japanese intelligence.



Birnbaum, Phyllis. Manchu Princess, Japanese Spy.

Cheung, Ester, et al. A Companion to Hong Kong Cinema.

Fogel, Joshua. Late Qing China and Meiji Japan.


Kawashima Yoshiko in high school with her beloved horse.

Kawashima Yoshiko at the time of her wedding to the Mongol general Jengjuurab. The marriage was a political convenience that would end up going nowhere.

Kawashima Yoshiko in her Manchukuo military uniform.

Kawashima Yoshiko in a recording studio in Manchukuo, c. 1930s.

From left: Kawashima Yoshiko, Kawashima Naniwa, and Gen. Tanaka Ryukichi. Though she would never cut contact, Yoshiko’s relationship with her adoptive father would always be fraught.

Kawashima’s political orbit would naturally take her close to some major figures in the Japanese hard right, including the ultrarightist leader Toyama Mitsuru (shown here).

Hong Kong singer and actress Anita Mui as Kawashima Yoshiko in 1990.

Episode 236 – Never Look Away

This week, we discuss the career of Japan’s most legendary director, Kurosawa Akira. From humble, middle class beginnings, our story will take us through some of his most notable films, and include detours into the lives of Mifune Toshiro, George Lucas, and even Francis Ford Coppola!


Kurosawa, Akira. Something like an Autobiography.

“Rashomon” and “The Seven Samurai” in Film Analysis: A Norton Reader.

The videos below are from the fine folks at Every Frame a Painting (now sadly defunct), and do a good job introducing the Kurosawa style.


The poster for The Most Beautiful (1944).

Yaguchi Yoko as Watanabe Tsuru in Ichiban Utsukushiku (The Most Beautiful), 1944. Yoko would end up marrying Kurosawa; the two had two children, and were very happy together by all accounts.

Kurosawa and Mifune in Venice for the Venice Film Festival in 1950, where Rashomon won the Golden Lion for Best Film.

Kurosawa on set with Mifune Toshiro for The Seven Samurai (1954).

Mifune Toshiro as Rokurota Makabe in The Hidden Fortress (1958), and Alec Guinness as Obi Wan Kenobi in Star Wars (1977). The Kenobi character was based on Rokurota, and Lucas supposedly approached Mifune to play the part originally.

Produced in conjunction with Francis Ford Coppola on the recommendation of George Lucas, Kagemusha ended up reviving the legend of Kurosawa.

Ran (1985) is loosely based on the story of King Lear, a Shakespearean drama of kingship and unreliable children.

The poster for Madadayo (Not Yet), 1993 — Kurosawa’s last full film.

Episode 235 – Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken

This week: the story of a relatively unimportant man who appears briefly and dies spectacularly, and the long chain of events that led to those moments. Politics, betrayal, war, and a dog — what’s not to love?


Morris, Ivan. The Nobility of Failure. 

The relevant section of the Nihongi for reference.

Como, Michael I. Shotoku: Ethnicity, Ritual and Violence in the Japanese Buddhist Tradition.


The main entrance of Shitennoji (Temple of the Four Heavenly Kings), founded in 593 on the slopes of Mt. Shigi by Prince Shotoku to commemorate victory over the Mononobe.

In this woodcut scene, anti-Buddhist Mononobe supporters try (and fail) to shatter a Buddhist holy relic.

In this 19th century woodcut, it is Prince Shotoku himself, not a lowly Soga soldier, who slays Mononobe no Moriya and ends the battle between the Soga and Mononobe.


Episode 234 – The Oldest Profession

Note: Since this week we’re talking about the sex trade, I’ve taken the precaution of giving this episode an explicit tag. However, it does not include any more language than usual; it’s just a precaution because iTunes can get pretty finicky about this stuff.

So with that in mind, let’s get down and dirty into the world of prostitution!

Listen to the episode here.


Stanley, Amy. Selling Women: Prostitution, Markets, and the Household in Early Modern Japan.

Garon, Sheldon. Molding Japanese Minds

A solid Japan Times article on the subject.


A print of a beautiful courtesan from the mid Tokugawa era (approx 1660-1680). Prostitutes became Japan’s first sex symbols, as women who lacked formal ties to a specific man.

A harimise in the old Yoshiwara. Photo is colorized from the mid Meiji era.

Probably the most harrowing image of imperial era prostitution is the harimise, the caged screen behind which prostitutes were displayed. When campaigners railed against the barbarity of the institution, images like this one (which was later colorized) were their most common touchstones.

Postwar Japan saw a big boom in prostitution as women had many other paths of economic advancement closed to them. Here, a woman solicits clients on the streets of Tokyo.

Even before the anti-prostitution law, relations with the authorities could be contentious. Here, police crack down on an unregistered brothel in 1954.

Kabukicho, Tokyo’s modern red light district (the old one, the Yoshiwara, is now part of the upscale Nihonbashi and Ginza neighborhoods). Prostitution continues semi-openly thanks to loopholes in the anti-prostitution law.

Episode 233 – A People Apart

This week, we tackle the history of the Burakumin. Where did this outcast group come from? Why does discrimination against them remain an issue? What steps has the government taken to protect them, and what steps have they taken to get organized and push back?

AMA link here.

Listen to the episode here.


Hane, Mikiso. Peasants, Rebels, Women, and Outcastes: The Underside of Modern Japan.

Neary, Ian. The Buraku Issue and Modern Japan.

Neary, Ian. Political Protest and Social Control in Pre-War Japan. 


This map, of Tokugawa Era Kobe, touched off a bit of a storm when the Kobe city government tried to sell it off. The map — redone here by the fine folks at Japan Focus with English translations — includes a label locating Kobe’s “Eta Town”, which caused the Buraku Liberation League to protest its sale.

Suiheisha members, c. 1924.

The 4th congress of the Asakura branch of the Suiheisha, c. late 1920s.

Matsumoto Jiichiro, who started his career in the Suiheisha before going on to be a founding member of the Buraku Liberation League. He’s probably the most famous activist in Buraku history.

A Buraku Liberation League rally.

The flag of the Buraku Liberation League, and (minus the red field) of the Suiheisha before it. The design is supposed to be reminiscent of the crown of thorns worn by Jesus, an outcast who developed something of a following himself. The design was done by Saito Mankichi, a Burakumin activist before World War II.

Episode 232 – A Thief in the Night

This week, we spend an entire history podcast talking about someone who may not even have actually existed — the legendary thief Ishikawa Goemon.

Listen to the episode here.

The link to submit questions for the AMA is here.


Brandon, James R. Kabuki Plays On-Stage: Villainy and Vengeance, 1773-1799

Morris, Ivan. The Nobility of Failure.

Botsman, Daniel. Punishment and Power in the Making of Modern Japan.


An Utagawa Kunisada print of Ishikawa infiltrating “Mashiba’s” palace from Sanmon no Kiri.

A Toyokuni print of Goemon’s death from the late Edo period.

An Utagawa Kunisada print of the final scene of Sanmon no Kiri, showing the death scene.

A modern Goemonburo, made of ceramic instead of metal.

Nanzenji temple, which, to be fair, does appear to be a fairly pretty place to be boiled alive.

Episode 231 – The Measure of an Emperor, Part 6

This week, we wrap up the life of Japan’s 124th Emperor. What, in the end, did it all mean?

Listen to the episode here.


Bix, Herbert. Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan.

Wetzler, Peter. Hirohito and War: Imperial Tradition and Military Decision Making in World War II Japan.

Large, Stephen. Emperor Hirohito and Showa Japan: A Political Biography.


Hirohito and Elizabeth Vining together.

As a part of his education, Elizabeth Gray Vining arranged for Akihito to visit Haverford College in Pennsylvania, where this photo was taken.

Akihito and Princess Michiko (center) flanked by Hirohito and Empress Nagako.

Royal Box in National Stadium, Tokyo, Oct. 10, 1964, during the opening ceremony of the 1964 Summer Olympic Games. (AP Photo)

The Emperor enters the House of Mouse.

Hirohito during his 1975 state visit, accompanied by the empress, President Gerald Ford, and the First Lady.

Motoshima Hitoshi, former mayor of Nagasaki. For criticizing Hirohito in the leadup to the emperor’s death, he was shot in the back and nearly expelled from the LDP.

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