February 18, 2013
NHK's 2013 year-long historical (Taiga) drama features another one of those amazing Meiji period women, Yaeko Yamamoto. To quote from Wikipedia:
Yaeko was the daughter of Yamamoto Gonpachi, one of the Aizu domain's official gunnery instructors. She herself was skilled in gunnery, and took part in the defense of Aizu during the Boshin War. After the war, Yaeko went to Kyoto to care for her brother Yamamoto Kakuma, who had been a prisoner of war in Satsuma custody. She remained in Kyoto, and became a Christian in the 1870s. Soon after, she married Rev. Joseph Hardy Neesima [Jo Niijima] and, together with Neesima and Kakuma, played an integral role in the founding of Doshisha University.
Yaeko later served as a nurse during the Russo-Japanese and Sino-Japanese wars.
She and her husband were a remarkably modern couple, causing a minor scandal in stuffy Kyoto by addressing each other as equals (not using honorifics) in public. Their house was equipped with central heating and had one of the first western-style, indoor toilets in Japan.
The television series begins with an equally fascinating juxtaposition. The very first scene is, in fact, a vivid depiction of Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg (1863). It then seamlessly transitions to the seige of Aizu Castle during the height of the Boshin Civil War (1868-69).
And then back to the Gettysburg Address.
Like the U.S., Japan was going through a revolutionary change, attempting to transition from a thousand years of feudalism to a "government of the people, by the people, for the people." And it'd be doing it practically overnight.
The next scene is that of a Japanese man walking down a Boston street in 1865.
He's Yaeko's future husband, Joseph Hardy Neesima (his Americanized name), who attended Phillips Academy and Amherst College from 1865 to 1870. Like Yaeko's Spencer repeating rifle, the Meiji reformers were in no way hamstrung by a "not invented here" mindset.
The producers at NHK pointedly intended these twins themes of a woman and a country liberating itself from the past to resonate with contemporary Fukushima, where Aizu-Wakamatsu is located. Fukushima took the brunt of the 2011 tsunami and nuclear melt-down.
One of Japan's biggest stars, Haruka Ayase, was cast in the lead role (you can watch her playing well against type as a blind swordsman in Ichi, a Zatoichi spinoff).
Back in the real world, describing his wife to a friend in the U.S., her husband wrote, "She is not a handsome woman, but she does handsome." Hey, there's no need to pretend that a big draw of NHK's historical dramas isn't the very attractive women they cast in the lead roles.