The End of the Shogunate
For nearly three centuries (approx. 1600-1868), Japan existed as a feudal society under the relatively tranquil rule of the Tokugawa Shogunate, which attempted to keep the nation isolated from rest of the world, resisting change or progress. For more details on the history of the Tokugawa Shogunate, please refer to our other liner notes (available on the web).
The last few years of Tokugawa rule were characterized by an unstable, highly chaotic political scene. The arrival of US Admirals Perry in 1853, and Harris in 1856, offered convincing proof that the western nations were far more advanced than Japan was in every way, especially in matters military, economic and technological. This realization planted the seeds of the final downfall of the Shogunate, which was by this time considerably weakened.
The Meiji Restoration
Modern Japan begins in the fall of 1868, when the era name "Meiji" was proclaimed and ruling authority was officially restored to the new emperor, Meiji. At that time only sixteen years old, he had been petitioned by the final Tokugawa Shogun, Keiki, to accept the restoration of power the year before in order to resolve political chaos that the Shogunate could no longer contol.
Emperor Meiji, who ascended the throne in 1867, and reigned until his death in 1912, was a firm supporter of western ideas, unlike the Tokugawa seclusionists. He helped Japan to emerge from feudalism into a modern age, quickly transforming the nation into an Eastern superpower. Meiji's centralized bureaucracy replaced the balance of power between the Shogunate and the autonomous domains. The military authority of the samurai class was replaced by a conscript army, based on the Prussian model. Under his orders, official missions (some in the form of foreign exchange students!) were dispatched to examine western countries.
The sudden modernization was not universally embraced. Importing Western philosophies, may of which contradicted long-held traditions, outraged many. Others, however, enthusiastically viewed anything western as the new ideal.
As Japan's seclusionist policy ended, it became clear that other nations viewed Japan as a backward nation. To correct this, the leadership devised a new policy of "Fukoku Kyohei" (lit. "Enrichment of the Nation, Strengthening of the Army") in the belief that the rapid enlargment of trade and the establishment of foreign colonies were essential for Japan's survival in the modern age. In other words, they stole a copy of the Western power's playbook.
The new government also cooperated closely with "zaibatsu" --- major merchant families and other plutocrats. By 1872, private banks were established, and the government offered for sale, at low prices, many previously government-run enterprizes, such as mining and shipping, to prominent zaibatsu houses such as Mitsui and Mitsubishi (the same giants which prosper to this day). These successful ventures not only boosted the economy, but also played a major role in enhancing the nation's military capabilities.
A central policy of the Meiji government was the creation of a strong national army. In 1871, several thousand men from Satsuma, Choshu (also called Nagato), and Tosa, the three major daimyo-controlled provinces, were called upon to form the prototype of a new national military.
In January of 1873, an Universal Conscription Law was proclaimed. All men aged seventeen were required to be registered for possible enlistment. Twenty-year olds were also liable for seven years of service. By 1883, all enlisted men (which was modelled after Prussian army implementations) were conscripts.
The law actually offered certain exceptions. For instance, a wealthy farmer could buy his son a draft exception by paying 270 yen. This was an expensive option which most could not afford.
When the law was originally proclaimed, the peasants reacted with outrageous riots, due to a misleading clause in the law. The statement that, in the western nations, "...one protects his country with blood...", was misinterpreted to mean that the army drained the blood of their conscripts for sale to other nations. Hence, strange rumors circulated about "blood tax men", who were coming to round up conscripts, dressed in white.
Part of social reforms under the Meiji Restoration called for elimination of the class system founded by the Tokugawa Shogunate.
Starting in 1869, the government classified the populace into four major categories: court aristocrats, upper-class samurai, lower-class samurai, and common people (in 1870).
The common people were permitted to adopt family names in 1870. Prior to this, most commoners were only known by their given name, and possibly an additional alias --- which might be their trade, district name, even a nickname.
Shurayuki - "Shura" is a buddhist term which is very much like "Hell" or "Netherworld", a conceptual location of violence and carnage. "Yuki" simply means "snow" and is a common girl's name.
"Shurayuki-hime" ("-hime" meaning "Princess" or "Lady") is also a play on "Shirayuki-hime", the Japanese rendering for "Snow White."
A considerable amount of historical research was necessary in translating Samurai Cinema's films and in compiling the information contained here. Among the many sources we have consulted, the following were especially helpful:
1) "Tokugawa Japan - The Social and Economic Antecedents of Modern Japan" Chie Nakane, Shinzaburoo Ooishi and Conrad Totman, eds. Univ. of Tokyo Press, 1990
2) "Japan - A Historical Survey" Mikiso Hane. Scribner, 1972
3) "A History of Japan: 1615 - 1867" George Sanson. Stanford Univ. Press, 1963
4) "The Emergence of Meiji Japan" Marius Jansen, ed. Cambridge University Press, 1995
The Russo-Japanese War
The rivalry between Russia and Japan developed in Korea after the Sino-Japanese War. Russia was also interested in extending its influence to Manchuria. Japanese officials recommended talks to arrange for Russia to recognize Japan's interests in Korea in return for Japanese recognition of Russian interests in Manchuria. (Hane) Many negotiations followed, but the failure to reach an agreement infuriated the Japanese government, and in February 4, 1904, Japan notified the Russian government of her intention to resort to millitary actions if necessary. At Port Arthur, Japanese fleet destroyed several Russian warships. A few days later, Japan declared war.
From the start, Japan had a clear military advantage: more troops (nearly one million) and warships, and easier lines of supply and reinforcement. Although Russia had much larger forces at home, they found themselves beset with the huge problem of transporting their forces over great distances.
A series of battles followed, both on land and at sea. Each encounter resulted in thousands of casualities for both sides. In March of 1905, the biggest land battle of the war was fought at Mukden for ten days, in which 300,000 Japanese troops faced 310,000 Russian soliders. Japan finally took Mukden, at a cost of 70,000 men. Russia lost 90,000.
The final battle took place in the Tsushina Straits. On May 27, 1905, Russian Admiral Rozhdestvensky's Baltic Fleet (which started its journey back in October of the previous year) finally arrived, to face a fleet commanded by Admiral Togo which was well prepared to fight. In twenty-four hours, the Japanese fleet sank twenty Russian ships and captured five. It was clear that Japan was winning. Growing internal political pressure, as well as a strong recommendation by US President Roosevelt, placed the Russian Government in a position where the only option was to surrender.
Japan's victory, however, cost her more than 200,000 dead and wounded. Still, by the end of Russo-Japanese War Japan had achieved a goal set in the previously mentioned 'Fukoku Kyohei' policy; Japan was firmly established as a major military and political power.
The Anti-War Movement
For the most part, the Japanese public supported the war effort with enthusiasm and often exaggerated patriotism. However, a small number of religious groups and socialist political activists loudly voiced their anti-war sentiments.
Tokunaga Ransui is loosely based on one such real-life socialist, and the events surrounding the anarchists' execution are in fact directly related to his life. Kotoku Shushui (1871-1911) was a leader of the new socialist movement, and co-founded a newspaper called the 'Heimin Shinbun' (The Commoners' Newspaper), which proclaimed egalitarianism, socialism, and pacifism as their guiding principles. (Hane) In 1907, Kotoku encouraged the Socialist party to adopt a much more aggressive posture, and in June, 1908, at a meeting of the socialists, two red flags with the words 'Anarchism' and 'Anarchic Communism' were hoisted. (Hane) It is not surprising that Kotoku's preachings created extremists, such as one Miyashita Takichi (1875-1911), a factory worker who came up with the idea of assassinating the Emperor after reading a book on anarchism. (Hane) Miyashita tried to get support from Kotoku and his followers. However, Kotoku was away to US (in Berkeley, where he became acquainted with refugee anarchists from Russia), and by the time he returned to Japan, he had become a syndicalist and was convinced that the way to bring about a socialist society was through general strikes rather than individual acts of terrorism. (Hane)
In May, 1910, Miyashita and his fellow conspirators were arrested, before they could plan their assassination of the Emperor. Also arrested were Kotoku and other socialists who had nothing to do with Miyashita's plans. In all, twenty-four were charged with treason, twelve, including Miyashita and Kotoku, were executed, and the rest were sentenced to life imprisonment. (Hane)
Ransui's room contains a portrait of Mikhail Aleksandrovich Bakunin (1814-1876), a Russian anarchist.
Ransui also reads a Japanese translation of a book by Petr Alekseevich Kropotkin (1842-1921), another Russian anarchist.
Plague (known by many as 'Black Death', 'Black Plague', 'Bubonic Plague', etc.) is caused by a bacterium called Yersinia pestis and transmitted from rodent to rodent by infected fleas. It is of course well-known that millions of people in Europe died from plague during a major 14th century epidemic.
A major plague epidemic also occurred in Japan around 1900, causing the government to recommend every household to keep a cat (as cats do not get ill from eating plague-infested mice).
In this film, the 'Secret Police' is in possession of this deadly germ. This bears an uncanny resemblence to the infamous Unit 731 of the WW2 era, a secret government biological-warfare organization, which was formed in the mid 1930's after the Manchurian Incident. Other parts of the plot contain many elements from the circumstances surrounding the fate of this horrible group. The organization, under the direction of one physician who had become interested in the possibilities of germ warfare in the 1920's, conducted intensive experiments (mainly centering on plague and anthrax) in newly-built labs near Harbin. After tests had been performed on thousands of unwilling human subjects, in 1942, the Unit commenced large-scale germ warfare on Chinese soldiers and civilians; the deaths numbered in the tens of thousands. During the last stage of the war in the Pacific, the Japanese destroy the Unit 731 compounds, and the Unit's head ordered the remaining human subjects murdered in order to destroy evidence of the Unit's secret operations.
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