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Edging Toward Japan: Provincial cities' dispatch of unique culture to the world

Hasekura Tsunenaga by Claude Duruet (Public Domain)

By Damian Flanagan

When I was in Sendai recently, I was reminded of various literary connections the city has, beginning with the great Chinese writer Lu Xun living there as a medical student at the beginning of the 20th century.

I also recalled that it was from Sendai domain that the group of samurai and merchants led by Hasekura Tsunenaga departed in 1613 on their extraordinary journey to the West. The group traveled first to Mexico, before some crossed the Atlantic to Europe, where they toured Spain and met the pope in Rome. While they were away, most converted to Christianity, but upon returning to Japan in 1620, they found the attitude toward Christianity had markedly changed and full-scale repression and forced apostasy was taking place.

These matters are the subject of Shusaku Endo's 1980 novel "The Samurai" and I had always thought of it in terms of another tragic tale in the closing out of Japan's "Christian century," which so filled Endo's imagination.

But spending some time the other night with the theater producer Jun Hirose made me see this story in a new light. Hirose-san was telling me how Sendai's mission to the West in 1613 had occurred just two years after a devastating earthquake and tsunami (known as the Sanriku Earthquake) had laid waste to the region. Yet the samurai departed in a 500-ton vessel, a symbol of Sendai's resurgence and desire to connect directly with a wider world.

In contrast the vessel that the Shogun Ieyasu in Edo (present day Tokyo) had built by Will Adams (of "Shogun" fame) was a mere 120 tons. In other words, the samurai mission was a direct expression of Sendai's unmatched local pride and ambition.

Hirose-san remarked that after the devastating Tohoku earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster in Fukushima in 2011, he staged a musical rendering of the samurai tale to give inspiration back to the people of Tohoku. They had been through this type of thing before and they had come through it with renewed resilience and determination.

It is easy to slide into thinking of places like Sendai as mere "provinces" of Japan, subordinate and subservient to the power of Tokyo. But Sendai -- and many other places in Japan -- have their own proudly independent culture and history. They wish to communicate directly that culture to the rest of the world, unmediated by interference from the capital.

The same surely applies to regional cities around the world which too often get shunted into a nation's secondary, supportive roles. As someone who hails from a regional city in the UK, Manchester, that is constantly irked by the dominance of London, I fully appreciate the sense of individuality in a place like Sendai.

We should perhaps all take inspiration from the bold samurai mission of 1613. Wherever you are from, you can reach out directly to the rest of the world and your ambition can be bigger than anything dreamt of in world capitals. That perhaps is the true message we should take from the extraordinary samurai odyssey to the West in 1613.


(This is Part 9 of a series)

In this column, Damian Flanagan, a researcher in Japanese literature, ponders about Japanese culture as he travels back and forth between Japan and Britain.


Damian Flanagan is an author and critic born in Britain in 1969. He studied in Tokyo and Kyoto between 1989 and 1990 while a student at Cambridge University. He was engaged in research activities at Kobe University from 1993 through 1999. After taking the master's and doctoral courses in Japanese literature, he earned a Ph.D. in 2000. He is now based in both Nishinomiya, Hyogo Prefecture, and Manchester. He is the author of "Natsume Soseki: Superstar of World Literature" (Sekai Bungaku no superstar Natsume Soseki).

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