Skip to main content

Land of warriors holds on to traditions

  • Story Highlights
  • Southern Japanese island of Kyushu is a world away from bustling Tokyo
  • Island is a place where ancient traditions are still observed
  • Samurai and feudal lords once ruled over area
  • Next Article in Travel »
By Dan Hayes
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
CNN Traveller

(CNN Traveller) -- The southern Japanese island of Kyushu is a world away from the bustling urban centers of Tokyo and Osaka and a place that still holds on tight to its traditions, Dan Hayes writes.

A traditional garden in Kyushu, where the Samurai once ruled the area.

Kyoko Sata points to the cherry blossoms in her Zen garden. Not so long ago, people would hang washing up to dry in those trees. At the top they'd put the men's clothes and at the bottom the women's.

She pauses to make sure I have understood the implications of this. Just in case I have not, she adds: "The men's clothes would drip on the women's. They would dry quicker."

We are sitting, knees bent, feet tucked away beneath us, in the main room of Sata's 250-year-old house in the carefully preserved samurai village at Chiran on the southern Japanese island of Kyushu. A neat, humorous fifty-something, she inherited this house three years ago and, with its wooden floors, paper partitions and framed portraits of stern-faced men, the place feels as though it has changed little since the days of her warrior ancestors.

The same is true of the gardens, small but perfectly formed to mimic the landscape behind they comprise carefully placed boulders, manicured bushes and ancient-looking trees. Here, the samurai would presumably have relaxed, safe in the knowledge that their settlement was designed to be defended successfully against surprise attack. If necessary, the main street could be flooded to become a moat. If any invader got past that they were faced by thick, wooden doors and zig-zag paths any of whose blind corners could hide an irate householder with a very sharp sword.

Old habits die hard in this verdant, volcanic region famed for its delicious oranges and pineapples where the pace of life is very different to the breakneck speed of Tokyo or Osaka.

Says Sata: "This area is known for its feudal mentality. Even 20 or 30 years ago it wasn't uncommon for us to wash men's and women's clothes separately. And women would have to bathe after men when the water was going cold.

Don't Miss

"This room we are sitting in would have been for men only. Women wouldn't have been allowed to enter," she adds. "I got married 32 years ago. When my husband came home, I would bow in a feudal manner -- I think he rather liked that but in the background I was in charge."

The samurai settlement at Chiran was one of 113 that formed a defensive network for the Shimazu clan -- the dominant power in the region for hundreds of years. These feudal warlords and their retainers were fiercely independent and not adverse to warfare.

Their story is told in part at Senganen, about 50km distant, where the Clan's ornamental garden, complete with shrines, watercourses and views across scenic Kinko Bay, provides the backdrop to a museum that gives a fascinating insight into the region's samurai culture.

Within minutes of entering the darkened, quiet, single-storey building formerly the clan's munitions factory you realize these were not people to be trifled with. They ruled their territories with a rod of iron. An offence as seemingly innocuous as "unpredictable behavior" could carry a death sentence.

In 1862, a British merchant named Samuel Richardson discovered this the hard way when he passed too close to a procession in which a senior clan member was traveling. He was hacked to death for his impertinence, while two of his companions were severely wounded.

The Scotsman newspaper reported the incident with horror, finding some good news in the fact that Richardson's wife "had a narrow escape, only her hat and her hair being slightly cut."

Imperial Britain was indignant and a fleet of warships was dispatched to Kyushu to seek financial retribution from the Shimazu. Totally out-gunned, with few firearms and largely medieval weaponry, the clan called the British bluff opening fire on the warships when they came close to shore to seize three merchant vessels for ransom.

In the ensuing firefight two senior British naval officers were decapitated by a cannonball and a further 11 sailors lost their lives. Five of the defenders also became fatalities before the ships sailed out of range. With honor satisfied, the Shimazu first claimed victory, then paid up the sum of £25,000 and promptly entered a trade agreement with the British.

The clan's forthright attitudes were, a decade or so later, to bring it into fatal conflict with the Japanese government. Trigger point for this was the administration's Western leanings and its abolition of the privileged status of the samurai. By February 1877 the Shimazu had seen enough and gone to war with the imperial authorities.

It was never going to end well for the clan. Its forces kept up the fight for over six months, but were eventually pushed back to the outskirts of Kagoshima, their capital city. There, on 24 September, the last surviving 500 samurai and retainers were backed into a corner by around 30,000 imperial troops.

By the next morning, just 40 Shimazu soldiers were still standing. Rather than surrender, they emerged from their defensive positions and charged towards the Imperial forces, only to be gunned down before they got close enough to use their swords.

That story retains an immediacy in this part of Japan, partly because of the way it resonates with a more recent historical event. It was from Kyushu in 1944 and 1945 that the special attack squadrons of the Japanese air force the kamikaze took off on their suicide missions, heading towards the US fleet south of Okinawa.

Drive from Chiran's samurai houses into the centers of town and the road is flanked by ishidoro (stone lanterns) 1,036 of them each commemorating a pilot who flew from the airbase here to press home an attack.

The lanterns end at the Special Attack Peace Hall a museum dedicated to the kamikaze. Outside, in front of a preserved fighter plane complete with rising sun insignia, Japanese teenagers pose for each otheršs cameras, laughing and joking in the sunshine, arms outstretched in a parody of a flying aeroplane.

Their levity is not repeated inside the Peace Hall. Here, visitors stand in reverend silence, audio-guides sealing them off from the outside world, as they stare at serried ranks of photos of youthful pilots whose final flight was made from the airbase that occupied this site.

Along with the photos are personal items and letters sent home by the flyers, who are portrayed as victims of an unforgiving military system.

"Most of the pilots were young students who were pressurized to volunteer," says guide Mio Aizawa. "Officers would get a group of recruits and ask anyone who did not want to become a special operations pilot to take a step forward. The peer pressure not to do so would have been enormous."

A few pilots, selected for the poignancy of their stories, are given precedence. The day before his final mission, Captain Masanobu Kuno wrote to his five-year-old son and two-year-old daughter: "Even though you cannot see your father I am always with both of you. I want you to get along together and always be a good brother and sister and to grow up to be good Japanese citizens."

It is a disturbing yet intriguing place. One corner of the hall contains a cinema screen where old newsreels show aircraft attempting to crash-dive into warships, either spiraling out of control as they approach or impacting with decks in a sudden, billowing cloud of smoke and flames. The silence among the watching visitors is tangible, occasionally someone dabs away a tear; it is surprising to see such public emotion on display in Japan.

What is less surprising is to learn that a particularly deadly form of kamikaze aircraft, a piloted rocket that could reach speeds of 880kph, was given the name "Ohka" falling cherry blossom, a name whose poetic pathos and imagery of youthful sacrifice was lost on the US sailors at whom it was aimed. With bitter irony they christened it the "Baka", Japanese for fool.

CLICK HERE to subscribe to CNN Traveller


  • E-mail
  • Save
  • Print