Posts Tagged ‘Toyotomi Hideyoshi’

In a blog post almost exactly three years ago, I summarized an April 2013 news article that indicated that a document had been discovered which was now the oldest known extant communication between Vietnam and Japan – dated to 1591, it beat the previously oldest known document, from 1601, by ten years. I mentioned in that same blog post that the newfound document would be included in an exhibition being held that summer at the Kyushu National Museum.

Well, I’ve now obtained a copy of the catalog to that exhibit (just from the library – not for me to own, sadly), and it is *gorgeous*. Lots of fantastic stuff – paintings of red seal ships, red seal licenses, objects from the collections of red seal captains, Vietnamese royal crowns, this 1591 letter, other letters exchanged between Vietnam and Japan at that time, not to mention some very nice essays about a range of aspects of Vietnamese history. I was particularly excited to finally learn more about that 1591 document. I know it’s a super obscure one thing, but I think this letter is pretty exciting. And, hopefully, Hideyoshi fans will find it exciting as well.

Scanned from the Kyûhaku catalog.

Here is my rough translation of the catalog entry for the 1591 letter, with my own comments interspersed:

This is the oldest [extant] letter from Vietnam to Japan. It is addressed to “the King of Japan” 日本国国王, from 安南国副都堂福義侯阮, (a lengthy title that I don’t fully know / understand, but) which probably refers to Nguyen Hoang (d. 1613), who would later become lord of Quang Nam / Cochinchina, the southern/central part of Vietnam, and who would also initiate relations with Tokugawa Ieyasu in a 1601 letter previously believed to be the oldest such communication, before this one was discovered in 2013.

The content is, roughly, as follows: the previous year, someone named Chen Liangshan 陳梁山 came, and because I [he?] had heard that the King of Japan liked male elephants, I entrusted him with one. The ship was small, and he [we?] couldn’t get the elephant onto the ship, so we sent [instead] favored incense and the like. The following year, someone named Long Yan 隆厳 came to this country, and said that he had not yet seen Chen Liangshan or the goods, and so we gave him those goods over again. Since the King likes strange things from this country, I have sent Long Yan with swords and helmets and armor, that he should buy strange things, and then to establish back-and-forth exchange of communications 往来交信 [i.e. relations] between the two countries, I am sending this letter.
At that time (in 1591) in Vietnam, the Mac 莫 clan and the Le 黎 clan were vying for power. The Mac would lose Hanoi the following year (in 1592), and with northern Vietnam embroiled in war, Nguyen Hoang would make his base at Hue, to the south. This letter is addressed from a “Lord Nguyen” 侯阮, so it’s presumably from Nguyen Hoang, or someone closely associated with him.

The earliest communication from Vietnam to Japan recorded in the Tsūkō Ichiran 通行一覧 and the Gaiban tsūsho 外蕃通書 by Kondō Jūzō 近藤重蔵 (1771-1829) is in both texts a letter from Nguyen Hoang to “the king of Japan” (i.e. Tokugawa Ieyasu) in 1601. However, the Gaiban tsūsho also records that that 1601 letter included references to earlier communication, and the Tsūkō ichiran indicates that the first “Vietnam ship” to enter port did so in 1595. (The term I’m translating here as Vietnam ship is 交趾船, with 交趾 (V: Giao Chỉ, C: Jiāozhǐ, J: Kōshi) being the term that gave birth to the European term “Cochinchina.” I am unclear whether “Vietnam ship” here refers to a Japanese ship designated for Vietnam, which I do think is a possible interpretation of this term, or more straightforwardly a Vietnamese ship, in which case the port would be a Japanese one.)

In any case, returning to the 1591 letter, for the addressee “king of Japan,” Toyotomi Hideyoshi would seem the obvious guess. Hideyoshi would establish the red seal ships (shuinsen) system the following year, in 1592. However, there does not seem to be any evidence that either Chen Liangshan or Long Yan ever arrived in Japan bringing Vietnamese goods, and it seems they may have been false envoys who were not of Hideyoshi’s concern/business 関知しなかった偽使 .

Still, comparison of the dates – that Japan had an intercalary First Month 閏正月 and that Vietnam had an intercalary Third Month that year – would seem to suggest the genuineness of this document.

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Mark Erdmann’s talk on discourses of legitimacy at Nobunaga’s Azuchi Castle was followed by a talk in a somewhat similar vein, by Anton Schweizer, Postdoctoral Fellow at NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts, who talked about Hideyoshi’s Osaka Castle.

Left: Hideyoshi’s Osaka Castle as it appears in a 17th century screen painting depicting the Osaka Summer Campaign.

I suppose I should have realized, but it never occurred to me before, that Osaka Castle as it stands today is a reconstruction not of the original castle built by Hideyoshi, but rather of a rather different castle, built by the Tokugawa, after they took Osaka in 1615. As we shall see, as you read along, Hideyoshi’s Osaka Castle, built in the 1580s-90s, was not the white-walled structure we see towering over the city today.

Hideyoshi first began construction on Osaka Castle in the fifth month of 1583; the tenshu (tower keep) was completed in 1585, with construction on the ni-no-maru, san-no-maru (second and third baileys), and outer bulwarks continuing into the 1590s. Textual and visual records indicate that the castle was originally lacquered in red & black, and gilded, with shachi (magical dolphin/fish) ornaments on the roof. The earliest surviving paintings depicting the structure show it in black, with gold highlights. Other 1590s-1600s buildings, such as Ôsaki Hachimangû in Sendai, reflect this color scheme as well. Sadly, I neglected to write down the other structures which Schweizer gave as examples. Such extensive use of lacquer would have been a major show of wealth, not only because of the initial cost of the vast amount of lacquer, and labor, involved, but also, Schweizer points out, because lacquer only lasts about 40 years in direct sunlight. So, even ten to twenty years after it was built, certain panels or sections would already have had to be replaced or re-lacquered.

Perhaps the most famous example of Hideyoshi’s ludicrous displays of wealth is his golden tearoom – everything, from the walls and ceilings down to the tables and teabowls, were gilded. This tearoom was apparently moveable, being moved from Osaka to Fushimi to the Jurakudai in Kyoto and back on at least a few occasions within the decade or so of Hideyoshi’s height of power. How that’s possible still eludes me, somewhat, but it seems to be widely accepted as having been the case. A replica of the tearoom is apparently now installed at the Museum of Art (MOA) in Atami.

Schweizer’s talk focused on Hideyoshi’s reception of special guests at Osaka, and the tours of the castle he would lead himself. These tours were crucial; much like with the paintings lining the walls of the upper two floors (among numerous other items and elements) at Nobunaga’s Azuchi Castle, Hideyoshi’s displays of wealth, power, and legitimacy likewise only function if people see them. In fact, now that I’m writing this and thinking about it, when we ourselves give friends the “grand tour” of our houses or apartments, what underlying discursive meanings are we conveying or reinforcing? Ideas of wealth, of our cultivated/cultured taste, of our intelligence & skill at finding & recognizing a good house, and at haggling or otherwise being able to find or secure a “deal.” I’m sure there must be scholarship out there on this sort of thing…

In any case, Hideyoshi would generally lead his guests to the top of the castle, to show them the extensive view out over the surroundings, a most standard indication or intimation in any culture or period, of one’s power. His guests included powerful daimyô such as Ôtomo Sôrin and Chôsokabe Motochika, and Jesuit missionaries such as Luis Frois.

Now, a castle is, of course, very much a military structure. As with Nobunaga’s castle at Azuchi, which I discussed in my last two posts, and as with any castle, really, the castle itself, with its strong walls, and extensive defensive design elements, can play a powerful role in reinforcing notions of the lord’s warrior identity and military power. Of course, Osaka also contained numerous symbols of Hideyoshi’s cultivated taste. The golden tearoom, along with his collection of antique tea utensils, and active engagement with tea ceremony and tea culture, were a major part of this. Hideyoshi also had European-style beds, imported from Europe, featuring ornately hand-carved wooden bedframes, and red woolen pillows. The castle complex included an elaborate theatrical stage, in lacquered and gilded wood, with flanking towers or pavilions of some sort. It is not clear what this might have looked like, exactly, but it certainly sounds like it could not have resembled a proper, traditional Noh stage. What sort of theatre might have been performed there, then, at this time when kabuki & bunraku had yet to be invented, and when Noh and kyôgen were so much more dominant, especially among the samurai?

Along with wall paintings, folding screen paintings, and a myriad of other elements, Hideyoshi’s palace must have been a rather lavish, impressive, sight for his guests, assuring them not only of his wealth and power, but also of his elite tastes and personal cultivation. Given his humble origins, Hideyoshi, in particular, even more so than Nobunaga or Ieyasu, would have (arguably) felt a great need to represent himself as an educated, cultured, elite figure. Interestingly – and this was news to me – Schweizer argues that Hideyoshi not only made sure to display his cultured side alongside his military power, but in fact actively played-down the military side, through a number of provisions, including hiding all arms & armor away from sight; not only does he not put them on display in some grand manner, as we might imagine a samurai warlord doing, but he actually hides them away completely out of sight. Schweizer goes so far as to suggest that, perhaps, we might even be able to say that during such guest visits, Osaka was a “feminized space.” Certain sources – diaries or accounts otherwise written by the guests – seem to indicate that all the attendants were women: that they did not see any male attendants the entire time they were in the castle.

I’m afraid my notes on the talk end there. It is certainly an interesting topic, and I look forward to anything Prof. Schweizer might publish on the subject.

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“Return of the Samurai” opens this Friday at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria in British Columbia.

The description of the exhibition on the museum’s webpage indicates that it will be mainly an exhibition of recent acquisitions by the museum – swords, armor, and the like, along with woodblock prints depicting samurai themes.

The key object that intrigues me is a painting attributed to Toyotomi Hideyoshi (above), described as “the greatest samurai general of all,” as if that’s a universally accepted designation. Seeking it out in the museum’s online collections database, I am not surprised to find it to be a rather basic monochrome ink painting with a rough inscription. I had half expected a masterful Kanô-style piece in full color against a gold background – that would have been a real surprise, and truly impressive.

Still, even such a basic and rough work as this, is very exciting to see and hear about, given it’s potential connection to such a famous figure. I wish I could see it in person.

Let’s see if we can make anything of the inscription:


Mt. Fuji, wrapped in clouds / X snow / X seen, visible / the pine grove of miyo(?)

My calligraphy-reading skills are not perfect, and I may have made mistakes… No overall meaning stands out. Sadly, there’s just enough missing that I can’t really pull it together, and my translation is necessarily a mess. If anyone can read the original better, or has further insights into the text, I would love to hear from you.

The exhibition runs from August 6 to November 14.

Image from Gallery of Greater Victoria online database. Copyright Art Gallery of Greater Victoria. No claims of ownership or copyright are intended; no profit is earned.

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