Severed human heads on poles, bodies used to test infamously-sharp samurai blades, dogs rummaging for a meal in what was left of the human bodies at the execution ground outside Shinagawa in 17th century Japan–in my old neighborhood! When I wrote a few weeks ago that one of my summer goals was to research this time period along the Tokaido Road in Japan, I had no idea that I would discover such startling things about places where I lived and walked and toured. Christians, if any could be found, and smugglers of illegal Chinese or Dutch goods (the only foreign trade allowed at the time), were prime candidates for the gruesome treatment described above. Society was very closely regulated, and systems were designed so neighbor was responsible for neighbor–if one person was guilty, several often ended up dead.
Dr. Kaempfer was a Dutch physician who sometimes traveled the Tokaido Road from the Dutch enclave (think ‘island prison’)in Nagasaki to Edo (Tokyo) on the Shogun’s orders. He wrote a scholarly and reliable report on every element of Japan that he could observe or get out of others, and a new translation of his work has been one of my guides the past few weeks. I will have more on him in another post, but during this initial stage of my research, it’s just been fun–and a little terrifying–to hear about places where both of us have been. He and I both walked on the famous “nightingale floors” of Nijo Castle in Kyoto–floors designed to squeak with the lightest touch, so no one could sneak up on the Shogun; We both saw some of the same golden Buddhist statues at the same Buddhist temples; Both of us experienced the same gracious treatment by innkeepers at traditional inns–women in kimono-type dress, kneeling at the sliding shoji (paper) doors of our rooms, bringing a lacquered tray of tea and beanpaste “sweets.” He and I both have remarked on the “lack of sugar” in said “sweets.”
It was his description of Shinagawa, however, that really caught my attention to how things have changed in Japan. I only lived in Shinagawa for a year, but my memories include apartment buildings, a green hill with a temple on it, a little flower shop where I bought a 10-inch high evergreen in a pot to decorate for Christmas, a hair salon that presented me with a leather-bound journal for a New Year thank you gift, and a large train station. It was one of the Shinkansen, or bullet train stops, so it was a major station with lots of tracks. When Dr. Kaempfer passed that horrific execution ground, he made his way to an inn “pleasantly situated by the coast.” The coast! Things are so built up in Shinagawa now, that I never even knew it was near a huge body of water until YEARS later when I looked at a map and said, “WHAT?!” Maybe I was being characteristically oblivious at the time, but I never, ever saw any evidence of that when I lived there. Gone is access to the view of “thousands of little boats” that Dr. Kaempfer saw.
I hope you’re having an enjoyable summer! Stay tuned for Dr. Kaempfer’s observation on the Dutch merchants he worked for, and the light for Christ that they shed that he called “too dim to spot an elephant.” I guess when there are placards at town entrances forbidding Christianity, and swinging bodies as a reminder that they mean it, it presents a challenging environment for evangelism, to say the least. The stories I’m reading remind me to pray that our country will always hold freedom of religion as a high value. Increasingly, it seems that we are being “told” in society that we are a country based on freedom “from” religion. I’ve seen the result of that stance in Dr. Kaempfer’s work, and believe me, it’s not a pretty sight. Perhaps governments everywhere need to be reminded that three hundred years after the best efforts of the Shogun to eliminate Christianity completely from Japan, Christianity is now allowed there, but the Shogunate is long gone.
What has gotten your attention this summer? I’d love to hear about it!