How to rebuild when you’ve lost everything? In the immediate aftermath of the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 11, 2011, as many thousands of people in northeastern Japan sought to answer that question for themselves, public broadcaster NHK began looking for a historical figure whose story might provide some inspiration — someone whose life it could depict in the 2013 edition of its yearlong Sunday-evening taiga drama series.
They came up with a ripsnorter: a 19th-century gunslinger who was also an English speaker, a Christian-convert, a medic and a tea-ceremony master. And what’s more, she was also a woman.
Meet Yae Niijima, nee Yamamoto (1845-1932), a little-known figure who, come 8 p.m. Sunday evening, will enter into the national consciousness in the person of model and actress Haruka Ayase. The 27-year-old Ayase is known for her fair complexion and fine features — currently put to good use in ads for SK-II cosmetics — but she is also reported to have a fierce work ethic and a steely will. She’ll need to draw on both as she plays the firebrand Yae, who, despite losing everything on the battlefields of Japan’s most recent major civil war — the Boshin War of 1868-69 — managed by the early 20th century to reinvent herself as a paragon of modernity.
Yae’s inspiring tale of loss and recovery was not the only reason NHK decided to focus on her. Just as important was the fact that she was from the Aizu domain, which today correlates roughly with the city of Aizu-Wakamatsu in Fukushima Prefecture. As Shinsuke Naito, the drama’s executive producer, explained at a recent press conference, “What with the nuclear crisis, we thought Fukushima Prefecture really needed all the help it can get.”
Renowned composer Ryuichi Sakamoto apparently felt the same way. In what is his first-ever involvement in a taiga drama, he has provided a rousing theme song.
Naito noted that the nuclear crisis has hit Aizu-Wakamatsu hard. In 2011, he explained, the number of tourists visiting the city was down 90 percent from the previous year, even though it is some 100 km from the power plant. The figures improved little in 2012, and now the locals are hoping dearly that Yae might help turn things around.
If a Yae-inspired tourism boom does transpire, one of the key attractions will be the city’s stately Tsuruga Castle, which as the seat of Aizu power had formed the backdrop to one of the turning points in Yae’s life.
In the mid 1800s, as Japan’s southern domains began trying to topple the Edo-based Tokugawa Shogunate and thereby reinstate the Emperor, a small group of rival domains in the country’s north closed ranks around the shogun. Aizu was one of those domains, and it provided soldiers for several armed attempts to halt the northward march of the southerners at various points along the Japanese archipelago — skirmishes that together are known as the Boshin War. Aizu and its allies failed, though, and by June 1868 the Aizu samurai found themselves defeated and holed up in Tsuruga Castle. For the next four months a brutal siege unfolded.
It was at this point that Yae, who was the daughter of an expert in Western-style weaponry within the Aizu domain, took it upon herself to join the fray.
“The interesting thing about guns is that they make women as strong as men,” she is reported to have written at the time, and she bravely set about proving her point. Arming herself with one of her father’s newest imports, a U.S.-made Spencer repeating rifle, she is said to have dispatched many of the attacking, pro-Imperial soldiers.
It is with this dynamic scene that the new NHK drama opens, with actress Ayase portraying Yae as a quietly efficient if distractingly well-turned-out killer.
NHK has given this opening scene a rather inventive twist, too. Combined in a subtle montage with Tsuruga’s defense are scenes from the American Civil War, which in fact had come to a conclusion three years earlier, in 1865.
“We really wanted to show the Boshin War in the context of international events,” Naito explained. “All over the world, change was afoot. The other important thing was the weaponry. The American Civil War was the first where modern guns were used on a large scale and those guns soon spread around the world.”
Yae’s Spencer repeating rifle was just such a weapon. Invented in the United States in 1860, its accuracy and seven-shot magazine were put to effective use by Union troops in the Civil War and then, after 1865, it was imported by several domains into Japan.
Still, despite Yae’s best efforts, the Aizu forces eventually succumbed. Its castle was razed (the current Tsuruga Castle is a remake, completed in 1965) and its population dispersed, forced for the rest of their lives to carry the stigma of their domain’s obstinate and ultimately fruitless defense of the shogun.
As they say, the victor writes history. NHK chief director Taku Kato said that, “These are the people we have always been taught to think of as the bad guys. In comparison with the energetic southern samurai, who wanted to upturn the status quo, the samurai of Aizu have always been depicted as intransigent and, often, downright evil.”
Naito explained that the new drama offers a rare opportunity to add a layer of nuance to the negative historical view of Aizu.
“Their commitment to the shogun can actually be seen as the result of a very strong sense of samurai honor,” he said. “They never wavered from their commitment, and, if one thing is true of history, it never betrays those who remain true to their values.”
Naito expects that this uniquely Aizu-esque dedication to samurai values, which will be featured prominently in the drama, might just help the people of Fukushima and northeastern Japan recover from the disaster that befell them on March 11, 2011.
“It certainly seems to have helped Yae,” he said.
After defeat at Tsuruga Castle, Yae moved with her brother, Kakuma, to Kyoto. There she refocused her energies on the dream that had prompted her interest in guns in the first place: achieving equality with men. This time, language was her tool. She quickly studied English and, by 1873, had become so adept that she helped pen one of Kyoto’s first English-language guidebooks.
Then, in 1875 she had a fateful encounter with one of the most progressive men of his generation: Jo Niijima (aka Joseph Hardy Neesima). Eleven years earlier, as an itchy-footed 21-year-old, Jo had convinced an American ship’s captain to give him passage across the Pacific — something that was then illegal under Japanese law. He had returned to Japan in 1875 armed not only with an American education, but the dog-collar of a Protestant minister and a dream of opening his nation’s first Christian school.
According to a 2009 NHK documentary on Yae, she and Jo made a happy, but somewhat scandalous couple. The pair adopted an American-style “ladies first” approach to doorways, and Jo didn’t bat an eyelid when Yae referred to him by his first name only (dropping the honorific suffix –san). Such actions resulted in many raised eyebrows in Kyoto, and Yae soon garnered a reputation for being a “bad wife.”
Still, such trifling matters were never going to faze a true daughter of Aizu. Like her shogun-defender brethren, she remained firm in her commitment to her ideals and carried on oblivious. Even when Jo passed away in 1890 (having established what is now known as Doshisha University, in Kyoto), Yae soldiered on, volunteering at age 49 to serve as a nurse during the Sino-Japanese War of 1894 and, later on, becoming an accomplished tea-ceremony teacher.
As Naito explained, “What united Yae and Jo was a strong commitment to realizing their dreams. For Yae, that commitment was grounded in the samurai values that had been instilled in her in Aizu.”
Although it was the Great East Japan Earthquake that prompted Naito and his NHK staff to choose Yae’s inspiring tale for this year’s drama, he said he is being careful that the program does not come across as being too didactic. “At the end of the day, we are just telling Yae’s story,” he said.
But, he added, “What her story suggests is that, even more so than in times of prosperity and peace, it is in times of hardship that you have to remain firmly focused on achieving your dreams.”
NHK’s 2013 taiga drama “Yae no Sakura” will air on NHK-G every Sunday evening from 8 p.m. commencing Jan. 6.