“Kaiunbashi Bridge (First National Bank in Snow)” by Kobayashi Kiyochika. It comes from a series of prints “Pictures of Famous Places in Tokyo” (1876–81) where the artist focused on how light, from the new technologies that were being introduced, were transforming Tokyo.
The Meiji Restoration had just occurred and industrialization and westernization being rushed in by the new government. The artist’s presentations of dawn, dusk, and night evoked a pensive mood suggesting a personal uncertainty in a moment of major societal change.
Sapporo is the oldest beer company in Japan. It was founded in 1876, less than 10 years after the Meiji Restoration.
The year was 1868 and the Boshin War – also known as the Japanese Revolution – had made its way north to the the city of Aizu. The Aizu Clan was locked in battle with the Imperial Army, who were trying to restore the power of the Japanese Emperor to rule the country. Aizu was on the side of those who wanted to keep the shogunate system, where power lay in the hands of feudal lords and the samurai they employed. This battle here would be one of the last. The castle at Aizu was besieged and, after a month, the rulers surrendered.
There was a particularly famous incident that occurred during the Battle of Aizu. A group of teenage warriors, 16 or 17 years old, had retreated to a hill from which to survey the battle and figure out what to do next. Called Byakkotai, their unit was intended to be reserve warriors, who fought if things got dire. And things were very dire: looking down on the city the Byakkotai saw flames consuming everything. The castle had fallen! The last stronghold of the Aizu was gone. Rather than surrender and lose their honor, the young soldiers drew their swords and committed suicide.
What makes the Byakkotai’s story so tragic – and famous – was that they were wrong. The castle had not fallen, yet, although parts of the city of Aizu were indeed on fire. They died for nothing.
It was the beginning of the end and it wouldn’t be long until the Emperor Meiji was able to take control of all of Japan. After their defeat the armies of Aizu and its allies were banished, and lost all status – and as samurai under a shogunate they had been near the top of the totem pole in Japan. It was a big loss. A loss that echoed across the entire country as samurai everywhere lost their privileges and had to adapt to a new way of living.