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Tōson Shimazaki: 夜明け前 (Before the Dawn)

The nineteenth century saw a host of events in various countries that changed the way that both historians and writers saw the country. The country before the event, during the event and after the event were often considered as radically different countries, with the historians and writers exploring what changes had happened and why. These events include but are certainly not limited to Napoleon and the Napoleonic wars, the US Civil War, Italian reunification/independence, the mid-19th century European revolutions and the Schleswig-Holstein wars in Denmark. In Japan the event was the Meiji Restoration of 1868, which essentially restored power to the Emperor and took it away from the Shogun. Crudely put, this meant that Japan changed from being a quasi-feudal state to a more modern one. Shimazaki, however, had always considered that, while this was a key event, there was not a sudden, immediate, country-wide change taking place overnight. For him, it was more of a gradual change, particularly at the local level. Both before and after the Restoration, at the local level, life went on, substantially the same way it had before but with both gradual changes and a few sudden ones. Shimazaki always complained that historians, in particularly, wrote about Japan before the Restoration and Japan after the Restoration but rarely looked at the nineteenth century or, at least, the second half of the nineteenth century as a whole. This book aims to address that issue.

The book starts in 1853, a key year in Japanese history, and ends in 1881. 1853 is key for two reasons. The first was the death of the 12th shogun, Ieyoshi Tokugawa. He died just a couple of weeks after the arrival of what the Japanese called the Black Ships, specifically the fleet of Commodore Perry who had come to Japan for the purpose of opening up the country to foreign trade. The book is set in Magome, a small hill town on the road between Edo (modern-day Tokyo) and Kyoto, which was Shimazaki’s home town. The story is based on Shimazaki’s family. Families used to keep detailed records. The Shimazaki family records were sadly lost in a fire but Shimazaki was able to access many records of other families in the town and, indeed, spent a lot of time doing do. While the story is based on his family and other families, he has used a certain amount of artistic licence in writing his novel, so that it is a work of fiction.

It would be impossible to summarise the plot in this massive (750+ pages) with a large cast of characters. However, it does revolve around the Aoyama family. At the start of the novel, Kichizaemo Aoyama is the honjin. This is roughly equivalent to keeper of the posthouse. This meant that any important guests that passed through the town would lodge with him and he would also be responsible for the stretch of road that passed in front of the house. This makes him one of the key figures of the town, along with his good friend, Kimbei Satake, the village elder. Because the important visitors stay with him, he tends to know more about what is going on than others. This is particularly the case when the Black Ships come, as there is a lot of movement of high officials between Kyoto and Edo. He and Kimbei seem very genial types and are always looking out for the town, caring for visitors, the poor and infirm, and making sure that law and order is maintained. They are initially unaware of the political situation and feel that Japan is still in what they call its long sleep and that the Black Ships crisis, like other crises, will soon pass without affecting them too much, though they soon realise that it is more important than they thought.

We follow other events, such as the return of the Black Ships and the 1855 Edo earthquake. But we also follow local events. They are all keen playgoers and visit local plays and put on their own festival. Hanzo, son of Kichizaemo, is like many boys. He wants to get married, which he does, but he also wants to get away from what he considers a narrow rural environment and eventually sets off for Edo. He plans to become a follower of Hirata Atsutane, a by now deceased scholar, who looked back to the old ways. However, once back in Magome,he is again bored and wants to get out, despite taking over his father’s responsibilities.

Shimazaki gives us considerable detail of the history of the period. In particular, we follow what is happening with the shogunate. After the death of Ieyoshi Tokugawa, there is considerable turmoil in Japan. The shogunate is weak and the Japanese are getting tired of their demands. We see that in Magome, where there are complaints about how much men and money are needed for all the travels up and down their road. This is particularly the case when the Princess Kazu married the Shogun but that was certainly not the only burden on the local populace. Protests got violent. There were assassinations. Hanzo’s group, the supporters of Hirata and the old ways, beheaded some of the statues of former shoguns and Hanzo hid one of the perpetrators. There were increasing attacks on foreigners – the shogunate was blamed for bringing them in – culminating in the Namamugi Incident, which led to reprisals by the British. However, internally there were a lot more issues, including the Chōshū rebellion and the Mito Rebellion. Hanzo and the Hirata supporters were very sympathetic to the Miso rebels and Hanzo was very happy when they passed through Magome. However, the rebels were brutally crushed. However, the motto of the rebels and the Hirata supporters was the same: Revere the Emperor, Expel the Barbarians.

The issue of the costs of transport down the road remained to the fore and though there were some concessions – travel by some of the important officials would now be by ship instead of by road and some costs were allocated for the costs – but these were inadequate. Given that the shogunate was short of funds and there was something of an economic depression as a result, the people were not happy. Part of the problem was that no-one knew what was going on. It was a time of many rumours, Shimazaki comments on more than occasion.

Things continue to go badly, with further rebellions, difficulties with the foreign powers and uncertainty within the shogunate. The matter is made worse when a poor harvest leads to famine. Meanwhile the burden on the post station increases and they appeal for further aid, which does not seem to be forthcoming. Something has to give and it does, when the shogun eventually transfers his powers to the Emperor. The Meiji restoration does not happen overnight. Shimazaki describes in some details the various events that occur, which include continuing uprisings, chaos, as the employees/retainers/samurai of he shogunate are suddenly without a job and stability in their lives, the role of the foreign representatives (the fact that they actually go to Kyoto and see the Emperor is considered outrageous by many) and the subsequent changes following the fall of the shogunate. In particular, there is more equality as the low-born no longer have to kowtow to the high-born, and, in Shimazaki’s view, they take full advantage of this freedom to behave badly.

For the people of Magome, there are changes. It is decided to move the Emperor from Kyoto to Edo, which has now been renamed Tokyo. Various posts are abolished and this has an effect on Hanzo and his colleagues. The various comings and goings on the road continue and cause their own problems. Hanzo remains active in the Hirata movement. However, the reality of the Meiji Restoration does not turn out to be like the ideal and Hanzo faces various difficulties which he had not anticipated. Indeed, things seem to get worse and worse for him, as he finds it difficult to adapt to the realities of the post-Restoration modern age.

The hero of the novel is Hanzo. He is a young man at the beginning and the novel ends with his funeral in 1886, eighteen years after the Meiji Restoration. But the hero is also Japan or, perhaps, more accurately, Japanese history. Shimazaki gives us considerable detail as to what is happening in Japanese history and as there is a great deal happening, this takes a fair amount of the novel. Some people may find it boring but, though I knew very little at all about that era in Japan, I found it fascinating to watch how a country moved from being a semi-feudal state to one that was, by the end of the book, becoming a modern state. Of course, what makes it most interesting is seeing the reaction of the ordinary people to these changes. In many cases, they are woefully ignorant of events taking place not all that far from them but involving people who have little concern for them. Often they hear wild rumours, which have little connection with the truth. They react, as people today react, to rumours and events in a manner that is not always wise. But, of course, it is Hanzo and his behaviour and reactions, sometimes sensible and restrained, sometimes less so, who makes this book, as we follow his life and thoughts as his country changes all around him and affects him in ways he had not anticipated.

Publishing history

First published in 1929-35 by Shinchōsha
First English translation by University of Hawaii Press in 1987