Nine swordsmen bent on vengeance stormed a Kyoto temple one winter day in 1863. They tied up the temple monks and beheaded their three victims.

The victims were statues.

The times were out of joint. The “land of the gods” had been violated. Foreigners strode the sacred soil. The shogun in Edo (present-day Tokyo) was helpless. Ten years had passed since American “Black Ships” steamed into Edo Bay — demanding trade, brandishing ultimatums, dictating treaties. The shogun signed. He opened ports to foreign trade, exempted foreigners from Japanese law. Was this not treason?

Medieval shoguns centuries earlier had seized power from Japan’s legitimate ruler, the divine emperor. The gods had long contained their anger. Now at last they were stirring. Yamatodamashii (Japanese spirit) flared in righteous Japanese breasts. Traitors — living and dead — must be cut down.

The 14th-century Toji Temple was founded by shogun Ashikaga Takauji (1305-58). A brilliant warrior and vigorous ruler, he charted a new course for Japan. The Ashikaga Period that Takauji initiated (1336-1573, also known as the Muromachi Period) spawned arts, commerce and diplomacy that permanently raised the level of Japanese culture. Noh drama, tea ceremony, deeper Zen, wider trade with China, the Temple of the Golden Pavilion, the Temple of the Silver Pavilion — such in part is the Ashikaga legacy.

The nine swordsmen cared little for that. Other thoughts consumed them: Takauji’s treacherous seizure of power from the emperor he’d originally been enlisted to serve; his grandson Yoshimitsu’s humiliating kowtowing to China for trade and the China-conferred title “King of Japan” — wounds to the sacred body politic still throbbing, half a millennium later, in the souls of those who regarded themselves as the emperor’s most fervent loyalists.

The statues of Takauji, Yoshimitsu (1358-1408) and Ashikaga Yoshiakira (1330-67) were of wood. The zealots yanked off the three heads and took them to the bank of the Kamo River for public display — an encouragement to loyalists, a warning to latter-day traitors. A placard explained, “These three traitors having done the worst evil, their vile statues have been visited with the vengeance of heaven.”

For 250 years Japan had been a “closed country.” Foreigners were “barbarians.” Foreign ideas were subversive. Foreign intentions were rapacious — look at China, corrupted and dismembered by foreign aggressors. Foreigners and foreignness would not penetrate Japan. Its rulers would see to it.

But the Tokugawa shoguns (1603-1868) could not see to it. Russia, Britain and the United States were expansionist powers, hungry for trade if not conquest. Early exploratory incursions in the late 18th century exposed the weakness of Japan’s coastal defenses. Barbarian guns would have their way. The Black Ships’ appearance at Edo Bay in 1853 settled the issue: Japan was open.

Subversive currents of thought had long damned the Tokugawas as usurpers — traitors. Japan’s true rulers were gods, not men. The shogun ruling in Edo while the emperor languished impotently in Kyoto was sacrilege. Now the gods were reclaiming their own, the foreigners their instruments. The rallying cry was “Sonnō jōi!” — “Revere the emperor, expel the barbarians!” Unruly rioters and deadly swordsmen converged on Kyoto. Shogunal officials were cut down in broad daylight. It was chaos.

In the thick of things, though hardly at the forefront, was a remarkable woman, a peasant poetess who burned with fervor to serve Japan’s gods and emperor. She could not wield a sword, and lamented her “weak body of a useless woman.” She would wield her poetry instead.

Matsuo Taseko was born in 1811 in a village in the Ina Valley in today’s Nagano Prefecture. The local economy was thriving. Historian Anne Walthall, in “The Weak Body of a Useless Woman: Matsuo Taseko and the Meiji Restoration,” speaks of a rural “industrious revolution,” harbinger of the urban industrial one to come. Cottage industry, not yet evolved into factory industry, was slowly raising living standards. Taseko’s father was a village headman and an entrepreneur. Farming aside, he ran a ferry boat concession, brewed and sold sake, and lent money. He was literate and had a home library. Often he had to shoo his daughter out of it and back to her chores. She wasn’t lazy — far from it — but bookishness is a passion not to be denied. If necessary, she’d skip meals to read. Female literacy at this time is estimated at 10%. Taseko was a very exceptional child indeed.

Nothing might have come of it. Peasant life could have consumed her. She married at 18, had 10 children, labored in the fields, raised silkworms — and wrote poetry. It was poetry that led her, at age 51, to part from her family and travel, mostly on foot, to Kyoto, on fire with nationalist ferment. She soared on wings she hadn’t known she had: “The scent of the plum / that perfumes the awesome reaches above the clouds (i.e. the imperial palace) / now clings to the sleeve / of this base-born commoner.”

Poetry and peasantry seem an odd coupling. Not so, Walthall explains. Itinerant poets roamed the countryside. They found eager pupils. Poetry and politics merged. Taseko’s teacher, one Iwasaki Nagayo, oriented her toward loyalism. He himself was a disciple of the nationalist thinker Hirata Atsutane (1776-1843), who’d written, “This our glorious land is the land in which the gods have their origin, and we are one and all the descendants of the gods.”

A poetry revolution preceded the political one. Both were “restorations” — politically of imperial rule, poetically of verse forms harking back to pure Japanese Shinto simplicity, unsullied by Buddhist and Confucian thought from China. Taseko, under Nagayo’s guidance, reoriented her poetry accordingly. “From now on,” she wrote in 1861, “I will follow the way of the gods.”

The following year she set out for Kyoto, to add her poetry to the gathering storm. “Caught at the mercy of the autumn winds,” she wrote, “I resolved to visit the capital to fulfill my dreams.”

First of two parts on Matsuo Taseko and early Japanese nationalism. Michael Hoffman’s latest book is “Cipangu, Golden Cipangu: Essays in Japanese History.”

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