History of Ōuzhōu as compiled by the Imperial Archaeologists


For the education and enlightenment, we, the Council of Imperial Archaeologists, hereby present a compilation of our knowledge of history of the region of Ōuzhōu, which in ancient time lay between the Bōsī and Èluósī Empires, and the Great Western Sea.

The dates given are numbered from the birth of the exalted Kǒng Fūzǐ (AC).

0-300 AC: The Archaic, or Dayuan Dynasty Period. These are the same Dayuans who, after defeating and briefly subjugating the Bōsī, established trade relations with the Han Emperors in 420 AC, the first of the Ōuzhōu peoples to do so.

300-850 AC: The Classical, or Dàqin Dynasty Period. The Dayuans are supplanted by the Dàqins. The Dàqins spread throughout most of the southern and western Ōuzhōu, and establish trade with the Han Emperors. To the east, they border with the Bōsī. To the north of their lands lay the forests of the Dé and the steppes of the nomadic Sīlāfū people.

850-1350 AC: The East and West Dàqin Period. The Dàqin Empire splits in two. Under the pressure from the Dé peoples, the western half succumbs to a period of chaos and in-fighting between the Dé warlords, known as the Gētè-Fǎlánkè Interregnum (1100-1350). The eastern half recedes before the Sīlāfū onslaught, but retains most of its integrity. The two halves will never reunite again under one rule for the next sixteen centuries.

1350-1450 AC (West): A Dé warlord Kaliman from the Fǎlánkè Dynasty reunites most of the western Dàqin. After a hundred years, his dynasty splits into two, eternally conflicted, branches.

1350-1650 AC (East): The Post-Classical, or Fu-lin Dynasty Period. Fu-lin rulers rise to control most of the former eastern Dàqin (and occasionally parts of the west) territory. Even after the invasions of the steppe people of the late 17th c., remnants of the Fu-lins will continue to control a diminishing petty kingdom until 2000 AC.

1600-2000 AC (East): The Five Tribes, Four States Period. Waves of invading steppe people crush the hegemony of the Fu-lin. Four nomadic kingdoms fight for dominance in the region: the Tūjué in the south, the Mǎzhá in the centre, and two states of the Sīlāfū in the north: the tribal confederacy of Bōlán-Lìtáo in the north-west and a former Mongghul vassal, Èluósī, in the north-east.

1450-2460 AC (West): The Eastern and Western Dynasties. The Western Ōuzhōu is dominated for several centuries by the power play between the East and West Fǎlánkè dynasties, separated by the Láiyīn River – once the border of the Dàqin Empire. The chief of their vassals and allies are the island duchy of Yīng and the many petty kingdoms of Xībānyá and Yìdàlì peninsulas.
(According to some scholars, throughout the four centuries between the years 1950-2350, the Eastern Dynasty ruled its increasingly fragmented territory only nominally – this period is sometimes known as the Hundred Kingdoms or Hundred States).

2000-2460 AC (East): The Three Kingdoms Period. Three major players emerge from the chaos of the earlier conflicts: Tūjué, Bōlán-Lìtáo, and a West Fǎlánkè principality of Hābùsībǎo, which absorbs the remnants of the Mǎzhá people (as well as most of the petty kingdoms of Xībānyá in the west). Certain scholars propose to split the period further into Older Three Kingdoms and Younger Three Kingdoms, when, after the Warring States Period, the confederacy of Bōlán-Lìtáo is supplanted by the rising Èluósī Khanate as the northern superpower.

2100-2200 AC (mostly West): The Warring States Period. Born originally out of a philosophical dispute over the nature of Dào, the conflict quickly engulfs most of Ōuzhōu. It severely weakens the West Fǎlánkè and the confederacy of Bōlán-Lìtáo. In their place, the Yīng dukes and the Èluósī khans, who took little part in the conflict, grow to major powers in the region.

The last century of this period (after the ambitious, but ultimately disastrous West Fǎlánkè attempt at unification of all of Ōuzhōu) is sometimes called the Peace of the Eagles, after the eagle emblems of the three strongest powers in the region: the East Fǎlánkè, the Hābùsībǎo and the Èluósī. Eventually, however, this fragile balance proves untenable.

2460-2500 AC: The Warlords Era. What initially looks like another conflict between Eastern and Western Dynasties, spills out over all of Ōuzhōu. For roughly forty years, the main powers, along with their vassals and allies, fight a prolonged, bloody conflict. Ancient dynasties are overthrown, and new ones come to power. Warlord states, based on old tribal allegiances, appear and disappear, particularly in the rough Sīlāfū borderlands between East Fǎlánkè, Tūjué and Èluósī.

In the devastated west, there are no clear winners, although East Fǎlánkè is nominally defeated by the coalition of the West Fǎlánkè and the dukes of Yīng. In the east, however, the Èluósī Khanate achieves total dominance, finally victorious over its chief adversaries, the Tūjué and Hābùsībǎo, and absorbing or subduing most of their territories.

2500 AC and after: The Twelve Star Coalition, or the Unified Fǎlánkè. Weakened by the warlord strife and facing the relentless rise of the Èluósī, the two Fǎlánkè kingdoms together with their erstwhile vassals form a defensive alliance and a trade federation known as the Twelve Star Coalition. In time, the overstretched Èluósī Khanate is torn apart by internal strife and external pressures. The Unified Fǎlánkè spreads eastwards, gobbling up the Èluósī borderlands piecemeal, until eventually its territory and might surpasses even that of the ancient Dàqin.

This, for now, is as far as we have managed to compile the ancient records. We will continue in our efforts to bring you the further history of this fascinating region as soon as the next volume is ready.

The Museum of the Lost People – mad libs.


Here we are, at the Museum of ____*. It is a stunning building, its structure cunningly reflecting the history and culture of the minority it represents. As we enter its bowels, we first read of how the _____ first appeared in our country – earlier, probably, than most of us have imagined – and how they mingled with the society they’d encountered. They came sometimes as warriors, sometimes as traders, but mostly simply as settlers, seeking a calm refuge from the storms of the land they had dwelt in before.

We witness as their culture and society grew among us. Here is their temple, reconstructed; here is the cloth their priest wore; there is a festive outfit, and a description of a holy feast. A restaurant serving their traditional cuisine. Copy of a newspaper. We read the writings of their scholars and social activists – for the first time, since back then nobody outside the _____ community cared for such things.

We see as many of them tried to integrate peacefully into our society, while others shunned or even attacked it, and we muse upon the different approaches they represented, and what may have caused them. We read pamphlets written against them, often by people we now consider wise; we are surprised at the intensity of the fear-mongering, of the lack of cooperation and communication from both sides; we hear the appeals for assimilation, for abandonment of the faith and tradition we did not, and did not want to, understand. We feel the frustration of the more enlightened ______ at their orthodox brethren, and at us, for not making an effort to differentiate between the two.

We nod, sadly, at a growing, futile hope, as we see our society become more tolerant in time of prosperity, followed closely by dread as we sense the threads of anti-_____ grow ever stronger, as the worsening economic climate brings out the worst in people. We shake our heads at the irony of those who felt that the bad times are already behind them.

The last part of the museum is sad and terrible, but it’s just as we expected. We leave the dark confines of the museum shaken, but not shocked; after all, we all know well the history of how the _______ were destroyed, their culture wiped out. In the end, nothing they did to prevent our hostility mattered. We hated them whether they tried to assimilate or stay apart, to live among us peacefully or to fight us. We hated them simply because they were not like us.

We stumble out into the bright streets that still remember their shadows, looking around in disbelief. Was there really such a people living here, not so long ago? Was there really a temple here, and the faithful coming to pray to their strange God in their strange language, eating their strange food, wearing their strange clothes – and all that treated as normal, if slightly annoying, slightly threatening, by the “native” citizens of this once-multicultural city? And was all this really wiped out so swiftly, without a trace, almost without a memory?

We shake our heads again, and we walk home, promising ourselves that this could never happen again. Not here, not now. After all, we are not barbarians.

*) insert a religious/ethnic minority of choice.

—————

The Museum of the History of Polish Jews, Anielewicza 6, Warsaw, Open 10-6 PM/10-8 PM except Tuesdays.

Germany: Memories of a Nation (BBC Podcast)


germany[1]We traveled a lot through Germany lately: both its past and present borders. It is nearly impossible to travel around Europe without stumbling upon traces of Germany’s past glories and sins. From Riga to London, from a Hansa outpost on Aland to the Imperial Trieste, the German-speaking peoples have left an unforgettable imprint on the continent long before the atrocities of the 20th century; and having traveled first around the Baltic, then around Central Europe this year, I had plenty opportunity to ponder this grand nation’s history.

Brandenburger_Tor_abends[1]So the new BBC Radio 4 podcast series, Germany: Memories of a Nation, drew my attention instantly – especially since it’s headlined by none other than Neil MacGregor. A few years ago, the director of British Museum attempted to tell the story of the entire world in 100 objects. Now, he is retelling the story of Germany – in 30 objects. This new series is just as intrigWeltliche_Schatzkammer_Wien_(169)pano2[1]uing and engaging, and possibly even more eye-opening, since it brings out the little-known German art and architecture from the shadow of France and Italy. Holbein, Riemenschneider, Caspar David Friedrich are just few of the names covered, among subjects that range from Stasi to Charlemagne’s empire – with the Holocaust, naturally, underlying it all, as it forever must.

The series is half-way through now, and you can catch it on its podcast page here. Go hear it. Now.

Yamamoto Yae – Joan of Aizu


Tsuruga Castle in Aizu
Tsuruga Castle in Aizu

Aizu-Wakamatsu is today a small, sleepy town, nestled in a cozy valley deep in the mountains of Fukushima Prefecture. It has a surprising number of tourist attraction for its size and remoteness, from ancient sake distilleries through cherry-blossom-filled castle gardens to skiing resorts and climbing routes on nearby Mount Bandai. It also has its share of famous people, either having born and lived in the city or passed through at one point.

This abundance stems from the city’s rich history as the capital of the powerful Aizu Domain, led by the Matsudaira family. The Matsudaira clan, ruling most of northern Honshu, spawned many sons, of which the most famous was one Ieyasu – who later took on the surname Tokugawa and became the first Shogun. Thus, the Matsudairas of Aizu became one of the most powerful clans in Japan, kindred to the shogun, and fiercely loyal to the Edo government.

It was to prove, of course, their downfall. The Shogunate lost the Boshin War, and the Aizu fought to the bitter end in and around the castle grounds. The defeat, and the harsh treatment they received afterwards, was a disaster from which neither the clan, nor the city, ever fully recovered. But the bloody Battle of Aizu did manage to produce two very different heroic figures in Japan’s history.

Byakkotai Reenactment
Byakkotai Reenactment

The first of these, and for many years far more popular ones, were the Byakkotai 19. The Byakkotai, or White Tigers were a reserve in Aizu army, a group of young samurai – boys, really, aged between 16 and 17. In the heat of the final battle, cut off from the castle, nineteen of these boys committed suicide on the slopes of Iimori Mountain.

The Japanese, always suckers for heroic sacrifice, naturally turned the Byakkotai first into a tool of war propaganda, and when that went out of fashion, a tourist attraction. All trips to Aizu-Wakamatsu had to include a visit to their graves at Iimori Mountain; local schoolchildren played out the story on festivals; and of course, Byakkotai Hello Kitty.

If any of that strikes you as tasteless and unnecessary, I have good news for you. The Byakkotai are no longer the only, or indeed, main heroes of Aizu. Thanks to the soaring popularity of a 2013 TV series based on her life, there’s a new boss in town, one that swept away the Byakkotai in the imaginations of the locals and took over all poster walls and souvenir stores – and this time it’s a woman.

tumblr_inline_mgp0n4Wi5v1rx699n[1]Yamamoto Yaeko, or Niijima Yae, is one of the most bad-ass female characters not only in the history of Japan, but the world. Not just because of what she did during the Aizu War – there were a few other onna-bugeisha, women-samurai, at the final stage of the conflict – but also, and perhaps more importantly, how she lived out the rest of her life.

There was a streak of military brilliance in her family since the days of Yamamoto Kensuke, the famous strategist of the Warring States period. Her father was a gunnery instructor to the daimyo, and her brother, a child prodigy, was a scholar of Rangaku and military science. In any other Japanese family, at any other moment in time, Yae’s interest in guns would be dismissed as an improper fancy, but both her father and her brother soon noticed how earnest the girl was in her pursuit. Another lucky factor was the introduction to Japan of modern Western rifles, which were lighter, easier to use and more accurate than the heavy, bulky arquebuses of yore.

YaeThe Spencer Rifle, a US Civil War surplus gun, became Yae’s weapon of choice, and is now associated with her in the same way that famous swords are associated with their owners. With this rifle, and with a unit of artillery she also commanded, Yae, wearing male clothes and haircut, fought on the walls of Aizu Castle with remarkable skill and effect.

The castle fell, and the story of many Aizu warriors ends here, but not Yae. She was after all only 23 when the war ended, and had a long, fruitful life before her. In fact, what happened next is perhaps even more remarkable than her short stint as Aizu Amazon.

Yae and Joe
Yae and Joe

She moved to Kyoto in search of her brother, and met there a man called Jo Niijima, an Edo-born, America-educated Christian feminist missionary, whom she soon married. For the next fifteen years, they ran together a private school in Kyoto which was later to turn into a highly respectable University, and fought for tolerance and equality within Japan’s strict society. But not even that was enough for the ever high-spirited Yae, who in addition to all her duties studied both the difficult arts of tea and flower ceremonies in Kyoto’s famous establishments, Urasenke and Ikenobo, becoming a certified master of both later in life – as befitted an accomplished samurai.

After her husband’s death, Yae’s interests turned from taking lives to saving them. She became a chief nurse in the Japanese Red Cross, and led a group of 40 nurses in Japan’s increasingly violent wars with its neighbours: in both the Sino-Japanese War of 1894 and the Russo-Japanese War of 1905 she became so distinguished she received not one, but two Orders of the Precious Crown for her services to the nursing profession.

Yae and Evangeline Booth
Yae and Evangeline Booth

The fiery spirit was stubborn to leave Yae’s body. Indeed, she lived long enough to receive yet another award from Emperor Hirohito – the grandson of Emperor Meiji in whose name Aizu Castle had been razed when she was a girl – in 1928, and to witness her country descend into the war frenzy of early 1930’s.

Throughout the 86 years of her life, Yamamoto Yaeko was a sniper, a gunner and a samurai; a master of tea and flower ceremonies; a scholar and a civil rights fighter; and finally, a distinguished nurse. If there was ever a role model for strong-willed girls everywhere, it’s definitely Yae of Aizu.

(and of course, I hope you’ll find more than hints of her in the character of Takashima Sato in my Year of the Dragon books.)

PS: The TV drama I mentioned above can be seen in a few places on the internet, and I highly recommend it. It is one of several such series in a very laudable string of recent efforts by NHK to portray the strong and powerful women of Japan’s otherwise testosterone-awash history, from Tenshoin in 2008’s Atsuhime through Oeyo in 2011’s Go to last year’s Yae no Sakura.

Sensei’s Death: Yoshida Shoin


Yoshida Shoin and the Black Ships
Yoshida Shoin and the Black Ships

 

On 21st November 1859, a 29-year old youth knelt down before the Edo executioner, calm and proud, clothes straight and clean. He asked for a piece of paper to write down the final message:

Parents’ love for their child is greater than that of a child to his parents
How will my parents grieve to hear of today?

Such were the last words of Yoshida Shoin, a teacher, a poet, a conspirator – a revolutionary. One of the many larger-than-life characters spawned by the chaotic Bakumatsu period, Yoshida was among the most tragic, and most influential ones. His candle shone brief, but bright, and ignited the flames that burned the old order into cinders from which modern Japan sprouted.

Bakumatsu, the end of Shogun’s Japan, was not a calm time. Political disagreements were more likely to be resolved with a sword’s blade or the blast of a cannon rather than debate. Born in this environment, Yoshida Shoin’s legacy was an unlikely one, but proved far more resilient than that of any of his more militant peers. For Yoshida was no warrior; all his students remember him in the same way: fragile, quiet, peaceful. But make no mistake: he was no peace-lover, not the MLK or Gandhi of his time. He was strong-willed and determined to overthrow the Shogunate’s corrupt rule, with violence if need be.

shoin_yoshida[1]That he managed to achieve so much before his untimely death, was a mark of his singular genius. A scholar of Chinese philosophy since the age of 8, advisor to the daimyo of Choshu at the age of 18, student of the great Sakuma Shozan at the age of 20, at the age of 27 he returned to his home town of Hagi – after witnessing personally the arrival of Perry’s Black Ships and various spells of imprisonment by the Shogunate officials – to establish a private school, based on Western patterns. In there, he taught not only modern economics, politics and art of war, but first and foremost he tried to instill in his students the dream of social equality and democracy: a dream of a nation not divided into immovable castes of warriors, merchants and peasants, but one where men of all classes can participate in the body politic freely, under the benevolent command of the Imperial government – ideas revolutionary not only in Japan at the time.

His teaching lasted less than two years, but, in the familiar, Christ-like pattern, those last two years of his life, ending in a violent death, were far more important than anything else he had done before. He may have died himself, executed for taking part in a minor assassination plot which never came to fruition – but his students – his disciples – from that period were instrumental in the revolution that swept the Shogun, and everything that happened after that. Their names are carved into the Japanese history forever, and are familiar to anyone with even passing interest in the Meiji era (though not all are remembered fondly today, especially by Japan’s neighbours). Takasugi Shinsaku, founder of Japan’s first modern troops, the kiheitaiIto Hirobumi, Japan’s first and, some say, greatest Prime Minister; Yamagata Aritomo and Omura Masujiro, the two fathers of Japanese armed forces; Kido Takayoshi, the great reformer and constitutionalist; Nomura Yasushi, Minister of Interior in Ito’s cabinet; Inoue Kaoru, Minister of Foreign Affairs in the same. And many others, some of whom did not live long enough to make such an impact, but who were nonetheless crucial in the events of the period. All they had in common was one thing: they all were, at one point or other, students of a 28-year old man from Hagi, Yoshida Shoin.

Yoshida's statue in Shimoda
Yoshida’s statue in Shimoda

Waiting for the executioner’s sword in a prison cell in Edo, Yoshida foretold his unending legacy clearly, in the poem written two days before his death:

Even if my body falls on the Musashi Plain *)
The spirit of Yamato will remain forever.

*) Musashi Plain is archaic and poetic name for the area around Edo/Tokyo

Related: Birthday Boys – Keisuke Ito and Philipp Von Siebold

A lesson in Poland’s history…


…in movie form.

On Monday, when most of the Western world celebrates Armistice Day (and Japan celebrates Pocky Day) Poland has its Independence Day.

But that’s not the reason for this post. The main reason is that I’ve stumbled on YouTube upon an old TV movie, “Squaring the Circle” which I saw for the last time as a politically curious teenager back in Poland, on a secretly pirated VHS tape. I didn’t understand as much of it as I do now, and I don’t understand as much of it now as I probably should… but it’s a great movie for more reasons than one.

First, the cast and the crew are amazing in their own right: the script was written by the inimitable Tom Stoppard, the director was Mike Hodges – of Get Carter and Flash Gordon fame. The star-studded cast included Bernard Hill (Lord of the Rings), Richard Crenna (Rambo), Tom Wilkinson (Full Monty) and other classic British actors of the era. The script is a typical Stoppard: a mixture of hard historical observations, swift dialogue and comic surrealism. The production is very theatrical – all sets, apart from the Black Sea beach, are built in one studio, which plays at the same time a communist party assembly, Walesa’s private apartment, and a striking shipyard.

The characterizations are stunning, although that can probably only be appreciated by a Pole, or a historian of the time; you’ll have to take my word for it, but the characters are instantly recognizable to anyone who paid attention to Polish politics in the 1980s and early 90s. Not only the big star Walesa, but more obscure (abroad) characters like Kuron, Mazowiecki, Gwiazda – and even the communist leaders of the time – are played beautifully, with all their idiosyncrasies and ticks replayed to the dot; what makes it specially touching now is that most of these people are today, sadly, dead (Mazowiecki had just had his funeral last week).

Second reason why the picture is so important is as a historical document. It was made in 1983/84 – when the Martial Law had barely been lifted, when many of the main characters were still in prison, before Gorbachev and Perestroika, before anyone knew how things would end (in fact, there was still a very real possibility that it would all go tits up) – and, crucially, before the political wars of the 1990s destroyed the image of Solidarity and obfuscated the events of 1980/81. In that manner the movie is almost like a Gospel: a second-hand account of historical events, but as close to eyewitness as was ever possible. Nobody in Poland could make such a movie at the time, and by the time we could, it was too late: the hindsight, pettiness and personal animosities have obscured the truth. Not to mention, we didn’t have a Tom Stoppard to write it.

To anyone interested in Europe’s history of the late 20th century, this is a treat. To anyone interested in Poland’s recent history and politics, this is an obligatory viewing.

Part 1:

Part 2:

Part 3:

Part 4:

Part 5:

Part 6:

Part 7:

Part 8:

Part 9:

Part 10:

Blog Tour Day 12 – Great Women of Japan


Day 12 of the blog tour: guest post “Great Women of Japan”:

Buffy’s Ramblings

Previous hosts:

March 1st- Love in a Book (Book Soundtrack)

March 2nd- Deal Sharing Aunt (Review/Giveaway)

March 3rd- Musings of a Writing Reader (Extended Excerpt/Giveaway)

March 4th- KMN Books (Guest Post/Giveaway)

March 5th- Laurie’s Thoughts and Reviews (Interview)

March 6th- Happy Tails and Tales (Review/Giveaway)

March 8th- Sweet n’ Sassi (Review/Giveaway)

March 9th- Books and Tales

March 10th- Free eBooks Daily (Spotlight/Giveaway)

March 11th- Simply Infatuated (Book Soundtrack/Giveaway)

March 12th- Buffy’s Ramblings (Guest Post/Giveaway)

Remaining hosts:

March 13th- Tamara’s One Stop Indie Shop (Book Soundtrack)

March 14th- A Bibliophiles Thoughts on Books (Excerpt/Giveaway)

March 15th- I am, Indeed (Review/Giveaway)

March 16th- Paranormal Romance Fans for Life (Guest Post/Giveaway)

March 17th- A Book Lover’s Library (Review)

March 18th- C.S. Jameson (Guest Post)

March 19th- Pink Fluffy Hearts: Diary of a Coffee Addict (Interview/Giveaway)

March 20th- Books and their Wordly Realm (Spotlight)

March 21st- Scribbler’s Sojourn (Guest Post/Giveaway)

March 22nd- The Avid Reader (Book Soundtrack/Giveaway)

March 23rd- YA Books of Witchcraft and Wizardry (Review/Giveaway)

March 24th- Waiting on Sunday to Drown (Book Soundtrack)

March 25th- PrincessReviews (Review/Giveaway)

March 26th- Froggarita’s Bookcase (Interview)

March 27th- HDWPbooks (Review)

March 28th- Mightier Than the Sword (Guest Post)

March 29th- Book Addict (Guest Post)

March 30th- The Many Muses of MaryLynn (Review/Giveaway)

Birthday Boys – Keisuke Ito and Philipp Von Siebold


Dutch_trader_watching_an_incoming_VOC_ship_at_Dejima_by_Kawahara_Keiga
A man from Dejima, his wife and his child. Could be von Siebold himself.

Two very important people were born on February 17th and February 18th. Important for Japan, for science – and for the events described in my “The Year of the Dragon” books.

Bundespost_Philipp_Franz_von_SieboldIn 1796, on February 17th, a child was born into the family of von Siebolds, Wurzburg doctors and professors of medicine. Christened Philipp Franz Balthasar, the boy studied natural sciences under some of the best names at the time, and by 1820, he became a medical doctor.

A friend invited him to join the Dutch Navy, and in 1822 Philipp Von Siebold embarked on his first journey to the Orient, on board of a Dutch frigate Ariana. It was to be the most important decision of his life; while recovering from illness at the Batavian governor’s villa, he impressed his peers so much they invited him to visit the secret jewel in the Dutch colonial crown: the Dejima Outpost in Japan.

Dejima, where von Siebold spent seven years of his life (modern reconstruction)
Dejima, where von Siebold spent seven years of his life (modern reconstruction)
Kusumoto Otaki
Kusumoto Otaki

He arrived in Nagasaki on August 11, 1823 as the new resident physician and scientist. The mutual first impressions must have been great: von Siebold stayed in Japan for the next seven years, establishing a medical school and teaching modern Western science to 50 students; in turn, the Japanese taught him their customs, and welcomed him among themselves as equal. Eventually, as often happened with the lonely residents of Dejima far away from home, he found love: a Nagasaki woman by the name of Otaki.

Monument to Carl von Thunberg, von Siebold's predecessor, set up by von Siebold himself.
Monument to Carl von Thunberg, von Siebold’s predecessor, set up by von Siebold himself.
Oine
Oine

Siebold’s legacy today lies mostly in his botanical interests; his collection of Japanese flora was unparalleled at the time. His name is remembered in many of the plant species he first described for the benefit of the West. Alas, his varied interests proved his downfall, when in 1826 he was discovered to be in possession of detailed maps of Japan and accused of spying. In 1829 he was forced to leave Nagasaki, abandoning his wife and his two year old daughter, Ine. He had to wait thirty years before the transforming Japan allowed him to return. By then, Ine had grown up to become Japan’s first female doctor, and established a gynecology clinic in Nagasaki.

Von Siebold's gardens at Dejima
Von Siebold’s gardens at Dejima
Ito Keisuke
Ito Keisuke

One of Siebold’s 50 students was another birthday boy: Keisuke Ito. Born February 18th in 1803 in Nagoya, thanks to the knowledge he had gained in Nagasaki and his own talent, Keisuke became one of early modern Japan’s most prominent physicians. In 1852 he returned to his homeland to study smallpox – and developed an effective vaccine to the disease which ravaged Japan for centuries, killing peasants and Emperors alike. In 1868 he established a medical school in Nagoya which formed the basis of what is now Nagoya University. By the time he died at the grand age of 98 (only two years before the death of his mentor’s daughter), he was a baron and the professor of University of Tokyo; his long life having spanned the age of greatest change and turmoil in Japan’s history.

Happy Birthday, Phillip Von Siebold!

Happy Birthday, Keisuke Ito!

The end of the world, and how we survived it.


“Seven Days to Rhine” Warsaw Pact strategy

I lived through the 80’s on the “wrong” side of the Iron Curtain. Like the West, we always knew the world would end in a nuclear holocaust. We were taught civil defence in schools: how to recognize siren signals, what to do in case of a blast (not much). There was a nuclear shelter at my school. The official war doctrine was of course secret, but enough of it got through to know that Warsaw would be one of the first targets.  It was too strategically important; its main thoroughfares and rail lines were built for the sole purpose of taking Soviet tanks from East to West as fast as possible.

Both sides had their own cultural reactions to the fear. In Poland we treated the apocalypse with humour, making mostly wacky, surreal post-apocalyptic comedies.The US movies that we were getting through on bootleg VHS tapes, and later were even shown on TV (as a warning, I suppose)  – like War Games – focused on the military or action side of the conflict, rather than the aftermath. The main exception was the terrifying The Day After.

The Brits, uncharacteristically, seem to have lost all their sense of humour in the 80’s. I suppose being faced with total annihilation makes one stop quipping for a while.

Here are the two most important movies of the era: Where the Wind Blows and Threads. Warning: they are drastic and bleak, and likely to spoil your Christmassy mood for good. You probably really don’t want to watch them. But they serve as a tragic reminder of how close we got to the real end of the world.

This would be no Mayan Apocalypse. There would be no heroes to stop that asteroid. This was the real deal – and somehow, miraculously, we survived.

If you want to be thankful to any deity for anything these Christmas, be thankful for that.

WHEN THE WIND BLOWS:

THREADS:

and the one I remember watching as a kid, the American THE DAY AFTER: