Yosha Bunko
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Tokyo nichinichi shinbun
No. 50 (48)
   1872-5-19 (1874-9)
Hokuetsu riots

Story translation

The 1st third of the 4th month of the 5th year of Meiji [mid May 1872]. Obstinate folk and others of Hokuetsu closed in on the prefectural halls and argued the reasons for their grievances. Disenfranchised samurai [roshi] from the domains of Aizu and Fukuoka seized upon the opportunity to secretly gather, and in response to this they incited riots [ikki] and in some places revolted [hoki]. In all there were over 6,000 people. [They] erected a banner on which had been written at the top the three large characters Heaven Illuminator Sovereign [amaterasu sumera], and at the bottom Recovery of the Tokugawa House [tokugawa-ke kaifuku] and Subjugation of Court Enemies and Evil Traitors [choteki kanzoku seibatsu], carried weapons, stormed the government halls of both Niigata and Kashiwazaki, and conveyed their admonitions at the offices of prefectural officials at or below the rank of counselor. The vigor of rebel troops who could not tell right from wrong [rihi o benzenu zokuhei] gradually increased. A number of officials suffered injuries. Having exhausted the path of placation, [the authorities] subjugated [the rioters] with military force. The local insurgents, disorganized more than before, quickly ran off. The uprooted samurai, the leaders of the rebels, were arrested. In no time at all [things] quieted down. Owing to the glory of heavenly authority [ten'i no kakukaku taru yue nari].

Tentendo Shujin

[Translated by William Wetherall]

Historical background

The Aizu and Fukuoka roshi were remnants of local and migrant forces defeated in the Boshin War of 1868, which resulted in the overthrow of the Tokugawa shogunate, the restoration of imperial rule, and the beginning of the Meiji period. The last two major battles of the war are known as the Hokuetsu War and the Aizu-Wakamatsu Wars.

Hokuetsu is a synonym for Echigo, the region of present-day Niigata prefecture. In the Hokuetsu War, imperial forces defeated the Nagaoka domain in fierce fighting that destroyed the city of Nagaoka.

After securing Nagaoka and Niigata, the imperial army marched over the alps to Aizu-Wakamatsu, in present-day Fukushima prefecture. Many Aizu warriors fought to the death or committed suicide. Aizu influence had reached as far as Kyoto, the imperial capital. Aizu financed militias that sought to protect Tokugawa interests and prevent restorationists from abducting the emperor and otherwise having their way with the imperial court. Though defeated by this alliance, Aizu remained a hotbed of anti-Tokugawa sentiment.

Hyappyo no seishin

Rice had become an issue after the fall of Nagaoka, when food was in short supply. Another clan gave a hundred sacks of rice to the Nagaoka clan, which triggered a debate -- to distribute and eat it, or to sell it and build a school. A hundred sacks of rice, invested in a school today, would yield a thousand or ten-thousand sacks of rice in the future, the school proponents argued. They won the day, and though people had to suffer a little hunger, Nagaoka got a head start in education.

It's a good story. And Prime Minister Koizumi put it to good use when he referred to "hyappyo no seishin" (the spirit of a hundred sacks of rice) in the wrap-up to his general-policy speech before the Diet on 7 May 2001. He was appealing to the people to borrow a leaf from the pages of Nagaoka history, to bear a little pain while taking the long view and supporting the economic reforms needed to pull the country out of its long recession.

Priests and samurai

But back to the Hokuetsu riots.

Farmers began moving on Nagaoka and Niigata, striking temple bells and burning a few barns and sheds along the way. They were led by men like Tsukioka Taito, the head priest of Anseiji temple, sitting to the right in Yoshiiku's drawing, and Watanabe Teizo, the Aizu-domain roshi who commanded the uprising, shown sitting on a sack of rice and shouting.

Takahashi Katsuhiko writes that, in addition to tax and commodity price issues, there were calls for the government to end its "shinbutsu bunri" (separation of kami and buddhas) policy. "Such is the extent that Buddhism had permeated into society," Takahashi says. "And hence the government's exclusion of Buddhism and its firing-off of a new policy of religion." (Takahashi 1992a:153)

In 1868, the restorationist government waisted no time issuing decrees that Shinto shrines and practices were to be purged of Buddhist elements. Over the centuries the two religions had become rather syncretic. Since the introduction of Buddhism to Japan in about the 6th century, Shintoists had had to scramble to maintain their influence and power. The rivalry between the two religions had often been bitter, and the "shinbutsu bunri" edict triggered widespread defacement or destruction of Buddhist edifices, with the intent of reducing or eliminating the presence of Buddhism in everyday life.

The "Amaterasu Sumera" on the banner shouldn't fool anyone, Takahashi continues. "Since the agitator was an Aizu man, the religion issue was form only, and his real intent appears to have been to rebuild the Tokugawa, as is written below it." (Takahashi 1992a:153)

The slogans

The text of the news nishikie goes to great lengths to spell out what is written on the banner. Someone who was literate would be able to complete the slogans beneath the name of the imperial family's divine ancestor, but the semi-literate masses, including this writer, would need a little help.

"[They] erected a banner on which had been written, at the top the three large characters of Amaterasu Sumera, and at the bottom Tokugawa-ke Kwaifuku and Chauteki Kanzoku Seibatsu."

In present-day orthography the slogans read "Tokugawa-ke Kaifuku" and "Choteki Kanzoku Seibatsu". In English they mean "Recovery of the Tokugawa House" and "Subjugation of Court Enemies and Evil Traitors".

Note, however, that the banner does not seem to include "choteki" (court enemies).

Enemies of the court

How, in any case, could the Aizu warrior call leaders of the Meiji government, which based its legitimacy on the "restoration" of power to the emperor and his family, "court enemies" and therefore "evil traitors"?

This claim that Meiji leaders were "court enemies" echoes the sentiments of Fukuchi Gen'ichiro, who was arrested in 1868 because he had criticized the restorationists. Years later, this most loyal of loyal imperialists wrote that his criticism of the restorationists did not mean he was opposed to the restoration, but only to the way the restorationists were using the imperial court to create what looked to him like another shogunate.


Etsu/Echi is the same character used to write "Viet" in Vietnam. It refers to a chunk of Honshu along the Japan Sea that includes present-day Fukui, Toyama, and Niigata prefectures (my apologies to Ishikawa).

Etchu (central Etsu) became present-day Toyama prefecture. Echizen (Fore Etsu) [foreland of Etsu], now the northern part of Fukui prefecture, is the area you pass through before reaching Etchu from the south, hence its alternate name Nan'etsu (southern Etsu). Echigo (Hind Etsu) [hinterland of Etsu], now Niigata prefecture, refers to the area you enter after leaving Etchu (Middle Etsu) [centerland of Etsu], still traveling north, hence Hokuetsu (northern Etsu).

Kashiwazaki and Niigata prefectures

The city of Kashiwazaki is better known today as the place where Hasuike Kaoru and Okudo Yukiko were abducted by DPRK agents in 1978. Or as the place where Sato Nobuyuki kept a 9-year-old girl in captivity for nine years. Or the place where Tanaka Kakuei got his start as a foreman in a construction company.

The Hokuetsu Riots occurred at a time when the Meiji government was nationalizing the territory it claimed to be part of Japan. The relatively autonomous domains of the Tokugawa period had just been prefecturized, and many small prefectures were in the process of being merged into larger prefectures.

Part of Echigo-fu became Niigata-fu in 1869 and Niigata-ken in 1870. The rest of Echigo-fu became Mizuno-ken and Kashiwazaki-ken in 1869. Mizuno-ken was merged into Niigata-ken in 1870. Nagaoka domain was abolished in 1870 and merged into Kashiwazaki prefecture, which picked up four other domains in 1871 and was then itself merged into Niigata prefecture in 1873.