June 29, 2003


I have spent the past three months teaching English up in Fukushima Prefecture. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Japan, Fukushima is a few hundred kilometers north of Tokyo. In Fukushima I have been living and working in a small town called Nihonmatsu. Although I have studied quite a bit of Japanese history, this is my first trip to Northern Japan. Nihonmatsu sits astride one of the widest passes through the Northern alps of Japan. If you are sending an army north, you must pass through Nihonmatsu. As a result, this small village in the foothills, home to rice farmers and apple growers, has played a pivotal role in many major conflicts.

In the mid-1700s the Japanese Imperial family wrested control from the warrior class that had controlled Japan for two and half centuries. The conflict that broke the warrior's power base and allowed this to happen is referred to as the "Boshin War". As far as Japanese civil wars usually go, it wasn't really much of a conflict. The Imperial Forces were armed with new rifles and modern cannon while the samurai had learned to depend almost entirely on their swords. Even lances were no longer a major part of the warrior's arsenal, although everyone still practiced with them. The better armed, more highly organized Imperial Forces stormed north through Nihonmatsu on their way to Sendai, the holdout of one of Northern Japan's most powerful samurai families.

The Niwa clan, overseers of Nihonmatsu, sent the bulk of their retainers north to help defend their lords in Sendai. The key to the Northern strategy was a delaying action in Nihonmatsu, Adachi, and several dozen other small towns between the Kanto plain and Sendai. Between equally equipped and trained forces it would have played out as a classic war of attrition that the wealthier northern forces would have easily won. Things were not equal and the first major battle at Nihonmatsu showed just how true that was.

The Imperial forces met the Niwa clan's remaining forces at the southern end of the valley. A ragtag force of teenagers, young men, and retired bureaucrats stood firm against a force that outnumbered them around a hundred to one. The resulting battle was a complete slaughter that lasted less than a day. Every battle between Nihonmatsu and Sendai went the same. A delaying action that the northern daimyo had hoped would buy them six months to build up their forces lasted barely a few weeks. Half their retainers surrendered, most of the remaining forces faded into the landscape without a fight.

All over in Nihonmatsu are plaques, stone stelles, and other monuments commemorating the battle, its victims, and the history that led up to it.

Living and working in Nihonmatsu has been quite an adventure.


Reflections from the Future
March 7, 2010

Over the past several years I have learned that almost everything I recorded here is false. My poor Japanese ability coupled with inaccurate reference materials led to my misunderstanding the role of Nihonmatsu in the Boshin War. It turns out that despite grand obelisks and a dramatic fall festival, the historic Nihonmatsu Castle fell so quickly that details of the battle are seldom found in any printed material. It was, it seems, a mere bump in the road on the way to Aizu where the final battle took place. Everyone who died there died in vain. Poets and dreamers aside, the majority of warriors killed in battle generally die in vain because their sacrifice fails to advance the goals of their leaders. There are exceptions, of course, and high school history teachers love to talk about the exceptions, but most of the time death in combat is inglorious and wasteful.

That is not to say there are not ideals and values worth dying for. I spent four years in the United States Army (1980-1984). During that four years and often since I have considered the paradox of my own willingness to go down in defense of my nation while still understanding that my death would probably be the result of poor planning, bad tactics, and bad intel rather than a necessary sacrifice to achieve an important strategic objective. Unfortunately, in war, the warrior cannot choose when and where he fights, only how. The teenagers and young boys who died at Nihonmatsu did not buy the defenders of Aizu any additional time. Quite the contrary, the Imperial forces rolled over them without hardly noticing they were there. The defenders did have the luxury of choosing where and how they died, so perhaps they themselves went down satisfied that their sacrifice was not in vain. If so, what right do I have to judge differently?

Such is the quandary of the historian. The facts are still the facts, but the emotion and intent can never be confirmed.