Isaac Meyer

Historian, teacher, podcaster

Tag: History Page 2 of 9

Episode 279 – The Prince of Thieves

This week, we consider a figure who appears in two stories from the ancient collection of tales known as the Konjaku Monogatari: the bandit chief Hakamadare. What do we know about him? What do the stories say about him? And what can we learn from those tales?


Sato, Hiroaki. The Tales of the Samurai.

Wilson, William Ritchie. “The Way of the Bow and Arrow: The Japanese Warrior in Konjaku Monogatari.” Monumenta Nipponica 28, No 2 (Summer, 1973). – This is where the translations I made use of came from.


Utagawa Yoshitsuya, “Battle Between Hakamadare and Kidomaru”

Utagawa Yoshitsuya, “Battle Between Minamoto no Yorimitsu and his men and Hakamadare Yasusuke, assisted by a giant snake”

Contest of Magic between Kidomaru and Yasusuke, by Yoshitoshi.

Episode 278 – The Men Who Stayed Behind

This week we investigate the role of Japan in laying the groundwork for Vietnam’s wars against France and the United States. How did Japan’s occupation of Indochina create the groundwork for the Viet Minh? And why did some Japanese soldiers, given the choice to return home in defeat or stay behind and fight on behalf of a country other than their own, take up the Vietnamese cause?


Spector, Ronald. In the Ruins of Empire.

Goscha, Christopher. “Belated Asian Allies: The Technical and Military Contributions of Japanese Deserters” in A Companion to the Vietnam War.

Tokyo Foundation Report: Betonamu Dokuritsu Sensou Sanka Nihonj9in no Jiseki ni Motodzuku Nichi-Etsu no arikata ni Kansuru Kenkyu (Japanese)


Vo Nguyen Giap with Viet Minh, 1944. The rise of the Viet Minh brought the group to the attention of Japanese officers in Vietnam, who considered them a far more palatable alternative than restored French control in the region.

British soldiers arrive in Saigon to accept Japan’s surrender. Many Japanese officers, ordered to hand over their weapons in ceremonies like this, instead arranged for those weapons to be recovered by the Viet Minh.

Japanese troops move into North Indochina, 1940. Japan’s destabilization of the area created the conditions that helped Ho Chi Minh rise to prominence.

Episode 277 – The House of Cards, Part 5

This week, we arrive at the end of the Ashikaga. What were the final 100 years of Ashikaga “rule” like, and what can we take away from exploring their time as rulers of Japan?


Berry, Mary Elizabeth. The Culture of Civil War in Kyoto.

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

Grossberg, Kenneth A. Japan’s Renaissance: The Politics of the Muromachi Bakufu.

The Cambridge History of Japan, vol 3: Medieval Japan.


A map of the major Sengoku Daimyo as of 1570. One of the major transitions of the late Ashikaga period was towards more centralized regional governments led by Sengoku warlords who presided over more centralized systems.

Ginkakuji, Ashikaga Yoshimasa’s retirement complex and personal buddhist temple. It is an example of wabi sabi aesthetics.

A map showing the territories of the Ouchi (red) and their march towards Kyoto in 1508. Though the Ouchi were successful in restoring Ashikaga Yoshitane to the post of shogun, in practice this reduced him to the position of puppet ruler.

The battle of Mikatagahara was a major defeat of Oda Nobunaga’s supporters (led by Tokugawa Ieyasu) by the Takeda. Defeats like this one convinced Ashikaga Yoshiaki to openly break with Nobunaga and attempt to defeat him on the battlefield. This did not work out for him.

Ashikaga Yoshiteru, the shogun who went down swinging. Despite his limited practical authority he was able to exercise substantial diplomatic influence in his time.

Ashikaga Yoshiaki, the final Ashikaga shogun, was deposed in 1573.

A 16th century wabi sabi tea bowl. Note the imperfections that prevent it from being perfectly round.

Episode 276 – The House of Cards, Part 4

This week, we do a deep dive on the life of Ashikaga Yoshimasa and the lead up to the Onin War, the conflict that traditionally marks the end of Ashikaga rule over Japan. But how fair is it to point to Onin as a break with the past?


Berry, Mary Elizabeth. The Culture of Civil War in Kyoto.

Keene, Donald. Yoshimasa and the Silver Pavillion: The Creation of the Soul of Japan. 

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

Grossberg, Kenneth A. Japan’s Renaissance: The Politics of the Muromachi Bakufu.


Ashikaga Yoshimasa, the shogun who presided over the Onin conflict.

For long after the Onin War, the power politics surrounding it were a popular subject. Here, a kabuki play dramatizes the political cunning of Hosokawa Katsumoto, as he has a rival killed.

Hatakeyama Masanaga; his succession dispute with his adoptive brother will help spark the Onin War.

A marker showing the site of the first conflict between the two Hatakeyama brothers, which sparked the Onin war.

A rough breakdown of the sides of the Onin conflict as of 1467. Blue represents the Yamana-allied families, Yellow Hosokawa-allied ones, and Green families that switched sides. You can see that while not all of Japan got involved, the central third of the country was embroiled int he conflict.

One scene from the Onin War.

Another Onin War scene; note the foot soldiers (ashigaru), who were blamed for much of the destructive looting by kuge chroniclers.

Episode 275 – The House of Cards, Part 3

This week we turn away from politics to discuss religion, art, and the economy during the age of the Ashikaga. Why is this era such a moment of societal flourishing despite the constant warfare and instability of Ashikaga rule?


Collcutt, Martin. Five Mountains: The Rinzai Zen Monastic Institution in Medieval Japan. 

Adolphson, Michael S. The Teeth and Claws of the Buddha: Monastic Warriors and Sohei in Japan.

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

Parker, Joseph D. Zen Buddhist Landscape Arts of Early Muromachi Japan.

Lu, David J. Japan: A Documentary History, vol. 1. 

Grossberg, Kenneth A. Japan’s Renaissance: The Politics of the Muromachi Bakufu.


A Noh performance. Note the mask, the musical performers behind the actor, and the fan in the actor’s hand — all hallmarks of Noh.

The gardens of Tenryuji.

A Noh stage; this should help you get a sense of the unusual layout of Noh performances.

Autumn landscape by Sesshu Toyo, c. 15th century.

Images of warrior monks were popularized during the Edo period, with depictions of historical figures like Musashibo Benkei (shown here with his friend Minamoto no Yoshitsune) becoming extremely common. In practice, few monks were actual warriors — instead, monastic armies consisted mostly of lay people hired to defend monasteries.

A mon (a type of coin) from the Muromachi period. The expansion of coinage helped grow the economy of the Muromachi era substantially.

Plum Tree Screen door by Kano Sanraku, c. 18th c. The Kano school emerged in the Muromachi period, and dominated the painting scene in Japan for the next several centuries.


Episode 274 – The House of Cards, Part 2

This week: war in the Ashikaga age. Plus; the reign of Ashikaga Yoshimitsu is generally considered the zenith of Ashikaga prestige, but why was his power built on such shaky foundations? Once the Ashikaga had seized control of Japan, how did they go about actually governing it?


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

Conlan, Thomas. State of War: The Violent Order of Fourteenth Century Japan

Conlan, Thomas. The Culture of Force and Farce: Fourteenth Century Japanese Warfare.

Grossberg, Kenneth. Japan’s Renaissance: The Politics of the Muromachi Bakufu.

Mass, Jeffrey. The Bakufu in Japanese History.


Nasu no Yoichi from the Heike Monogatari. Attempts to live up to feats of heroes like Yoichi were the driving force behind Muromachi period battles.

A scene from the Taiheiki; note that each warrior is individually labeled. This print is from the Edo era, but the Taiheiki text it is lifted from mimics the Heike Monogatari in prizing individual accomplishment as the hallmark of the samurai.

Kinkakuji, the “retirement home” of Ashikaga Yoshimitsu. Built as a Buddhist temple in the style popular on the Chinese mainland.

Ashikaga Yoshinori; chosen by lot to be shogun, he was probably the last person of real competence to hold the post.

Episode 273 – The House of Cards, Part 1

This week we start a multipart series on the Muromachi period and the reign of the Ashikaga family. How did they come to power? Why is their government generally described as so weak? And how, despite that weak government, did they win a 60 year war for control of Japan?


Conlan, Thomas. State of War: The Violent Order of Fourteenth Century Japan

Conlan, Thomas. The Culture of Force and Farce: Fourteenth Century Japanese Warfare.

Sansom, George B. A History of Japan, 1333-1615.

Grossberg, Kenneth. Japan’s Renaissance: The Politics of the Muromachi Bakufu.

Mass, Jeffrey. The Bakufu in Japanese History.


Ashikaga Takauji dressed in the style of his class for battle.

This map gives you an idea of the relative proximity of the two courts. Despite this, Yoshino’s mountainous location made it hard for the Ashikaga to take militarily.

The Yoshino palace. Even this photo gives you an idea of the difficulty of the terrain.

The Hana no Gosho, or palace of flowers on Muromachi Ave in Kyoto. This was the center of Ashikaga power, and the place from which we get the name “Muromachi Period.”

Kusunoki Masatsura (son of Masashige) defeating the armies of Ashikaga Takauji. Woodcut from the Edo period by Kuniyoshi.

The death of Kusunoki Masatsura at the Battle of Shijo Nawate. After decades of war, fewer and fewer samurai were willing to keep fighting for the south, and eventually Masatsura’s own brother would become a leading advocate for peace.

Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, the third Ashikaga shogun and the one to end the war. Note the shaved head and Buddhist prayer beads; we’ll have more to say about his religion later.

Go Kameyama, the final emperor of the Southern Court. Today, the Imperial Household Agency and the Japanese government recognize the southern line as legitimate even though the current emperors are descendants of the northern branch.

Episode 272 – I am the Law!

This week we cover the life and career of the legendary judge Oka Tadasuke, who rose from minor samurai to the rank of daimyo and a major position in the bakufu — only to become a legendary figure. Who is he? How did he rise so high? And what can he tell us about the role of judges and bureaucrats in Japanese society more generally?


Dening, Walter. Japan in Days of Yore. 

Mansfield, Stephen. Tokyo: A Biography.

Nice, Richard W. Treasury of Law. 

Angles, Jeffrey, trans. “The Execution of Ten’ichibo.” Critical Asian Studies 37, no 2 (2005), 305-321.


Ooka Tadasuke, from a woodcut illustrated version of the Ooka Seidan.

Ooka Tadasuke’s grave in Kanagawa.

A monument to the former site of the Minami Machibugyosho (the place of business for the Minami Machi bugyo). It’s located outside Yurakucho Station in Tokyo.

Tokugawa Yoshimune, Ooka Tadasuke’s patron.

Toyohara Kunisada print from the illustrated Ooka Seidan. This particular case is the story of a murder solved by Ooka.

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.

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