Saturday, March 24, 2012

The Saga of Poland's "Siberian Children"

One of the few heartwarming stories to come out of the turmoil of World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution is that of the Polish children rescued by the Japanese government and returned to their homeland in 1922. This story is one that is little-known outside of Poland, where the children are called the "Siberian Children".

In 1919, over 100,000 Poles were stranded in far-eastern Siberia due to the civil war raging in the West between the Bolsheviks and the Whites. These people had no way to make a livelihood and were ravaged by famine and illness. They were dying a slow, agonizing death in a foreign land.

The adults decided that if they were going to die in Siberia, fine. However, they did not want their children (many of whom were orphans) to suffer the same fate. So they formed a relief group and launched appeals to various European countries as well as the US to help transport some of these children out of Russia and back to Poland. All of these countries ignored their plea for help.

However, there was one country that listened and offered to help. That country was Japan. After one of the relief group's leaders arrived in Japan and asked the Japanese government for assistance, they agreed to help. The Japanese Red Cross would dispatch ships to Russia to evacuate the children. They would also provide medical assistance to the children, who had been ravaged with malnutrition and typhoid fever, until they were well-enough to start the journey to Poland.

In July, 1920, a Japanese Red Cross ship arrived in Vladivostok for the children. From July 1920-July 1922, 765 Polish children were saved. People from all over Japan provided assistance for the children including clothing and food donations. Some Japanese even made woolen sweaters for the children to take home to Poland, fearing that Poland would be a very cold place! The children stayed in Japan until they were healthy enough to travel.

In late August-September 1922, the Polish children left Japan to begin the long journey back to Poland. They were given a warm send-off by the Japanese, to whom the Polish children shouted "Arigatou! Sayonara!" ("Thank you! Goodbye") and sang the Japanese national anthem as the ship departed.

Over time, the Siberian Children stayed in close touch, but 17 years later, another devastating war would come to Poland and their story would be nearly forgotten in the aftermath of World War II and four and a half decades of communist rule, during which their story was censored by the authorities so as to not harm Polish-Soviet relations.

After communist rule ended in 1989, the public regained an interest in the saga of the Siberian Children and the Japanese embassy in Warsaw began hosting meetings with some of the surviving Siberian Children in 1993. However, at this point in time, the surviving children were well in their eighties and their numbers were dropping. In July 2002, Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko visited Poland and met with three of the surviving Siberian Children.

These children experience hardships that most children will never know, but thanks to the generosity of the Japanese people, the Siberian Children were able to go home. When disaster struck Japan in March 2011, the Polish people were able to return the favor.

- (Polish language site about the Siberian children. Includes pictures.)
- (Internet forum which includes an article written by former Japanese ambassador to Poland Prof. Nagao Hyodo.)

Sunday, March 18, 2012

The Nakoso Barrier: A Place of Fear and Intrigue in Ancient Japan

"Minamoto Yoshiie at the Nakoso Barrier" by Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861).(
In Iwaki City in Fukushima Prefecture, Japan, there stands an ancient marker at the Nakoso Barrier Literature and History Museum that says "Enemies of the Emperor, do not come here!". At first glance this marker is an innocuous-looking sign from centuries ago, but at one time this marker used to mark the spot where civilization ended and the unknown began.

The Nakoso (meaning “勿来”, or "Do not come here!") Barrier and the Kikuta barrier gate (depicted in the print above) which stood at the site of the marker were built in the 5th century AD during the Yamato period to protect "civilized Japan" from the "barbarian" Emishi tribes of the north. The message on the marker was directed at the Emishi, or Michinoku ("people of the north" in Japanese) as they are also called.

The lands north of the Nakoso Barrier were a place that most ancient Japanese feared. However, it was also a place of curiosity and even romance. This made the Nakoso Barrier an 'uta-makura', or a place that inspired a number of poets and writers. Many poems were written about lovers who were separated by the barrier, or of the climate being different between north and south.

One person who is most associated with the Nakoso Barrier is Minamoto no Yoshiie (1039-1106), who was a samurai of the Minamoto clan and commander-in-chief of the defense of the North. Yoshiie was skilled in the arts of war, as well as a poet. His most famous poem is one he composed while passing through the barrier, which goes:

"How I wish to forbid the blowing wind,
At the Barrier of Nakoso, the 'forbidding' gate.
But the mountain cherry blossoms are falling,
Filling the rord, to narrow down the pass."

(taken from The Founding of the Nation, page one)

He was so touched by the falling cherry blossom petals that it made the trek through the fearsome Kikuta Gate much more pleasant! This poem also forms the basis for Kuniyoshi's ukiyo-e print above.

Yoshiie subsequently fought two bloody campaigns north of the Nakoso Barrier against the Abe clan during the Zenkunen War, or Early Nine Years' War, as well as the Kiyowara clan during the Gosannen, or Later Three Years' War. His poetic renga, or "linked poem" exchange with Abe warrior Abe Sadato in 1049 about plum blossoms is particularly famous in Japanese history and literature.

Nowadays the Nakoso Barrier is no more, but its place in Japanese history and literature will no doubt live on forever!

For more about the Nakoso Barrier, see the links below:
- Homepage of the Iwaki City Nakoso Barrier Literature and History Museum (in Japanese)
-,_Fukushima (Wikipedia history of Iwaki city)
- (Wikipedia entry on Minamoto no Yoshiie)
-;id=104462;type=101 (Another ukiyo-e print by Edo-era artist Tsukioka Yoshitoshi depicting the exchange between Yoshiie and Abe Sadato at the Nakoso barrier.)

Monday, March 12, 2012

The Mystery of Sarawak's Stabbed Governor

In the BBC News today was an article about the murder of the former British governor of Sarawak (one of the two states on the island of Borneo that are part of Malaysia) Duncan Stewart. This is a tragic affair that still remains a mystery some 63 years later.

You can find the article here:

Onogawa Kisaburō: The Edo-Period Sumo Wrestling Champion

19th century ukiyo-e print by Katsukawa Shunei of Onogawa Kisaburō (left).
During the late 17th century, or Edo period in Japan, the city of Edo (modern-day Tokyo) broke out in a frenzy of sumo wrestling-mania. Everyone became crazy about sumo wrestling. This frenzy can largely be attributed to one sumo fighter from Osaka: Onogawa Kisaburō.

In February 1782, Onogawa came to Edo and fought one of the nation's top sumo wrestlers, the ozeki (champion) Tanikaze Kajinosuke. Tanikaze was an enormous man of 1.89 meters (6'2) and weighed a hefty 169 kg (370 lbs). He had been in 63 sumo fights prior to his fight with Onogawa and won all of them. Onogawa was much shorter than Tanikaze, coming in at 1.76 meters (5'9) and weighing 116 kg (260 lbs). Onogawa had only won seven tournament titles compared to Tanikaze's 21.

Nevertheless, Onogawa won the fight, and became an instant celebrity. He was featured as a principal character in a popular kabuki play of the time. His likeness adorned a number of ukiyo-e prints, including a famous one by ukiyo-e artist Tsukioka Yoshitoshi depicting him blowing smoke in the face of a monster. And a year after his famous fight, he married a geisha from the Yoshiwara entertainment district named Yae.

In November 1789, Tanikaze and Onogawa were both given the rank of 4th and 5th Yokozuna (sumo wrestling's top division) by the House of Yoshida Tsukasa. They were the first living and confirmed wrestlers to achieve this rank. This awards certification was noteworthy in two more ways. For one, it was during this certification that Onogawa and Tanikaze became the first sumo wrestlers to perform the dohyō-iri, or the sumo ring-entering ceremony that is still performed in sumo matches today. Also in this match, they were the first sumo wrestlers to wear the Yokozuna's famous gohei - or wooden wand - garment, which is the garment that many people still associate with sumo wrestling champions.

Onogawa retired in 1798 and died eight years later. Onogawa the man might've died, but his legend and the impact he left on Japanese sumo wrestling still live on to this very day.

For more info about Onogawa Kisaburō, be sure to check out the sites below: (Wikipedia entry on Onogawa Kisaburō.) (Another famous ukiyo-e print of Onogawa Kisaburō by the artist Katsukawa Shunsho, whose prints of sumo wrestlers were very popular during the Edo period.)

Welcome to the Blog!

Welcome to "The Asian History Blog"! This is a brand new blog and things are still being set up, so please be patient while new features are added and new material gets posted.

In this blog you'll find all kinds of tidbits of Asian history, ranging from the obscure to important events in Asian history that changed the world. You'll read about people who played a pivotal role in their country, noteworthy events, places, and much, much more.

It's my hope that you'll learn more about history that's not so well-known in the West and hopefully be entertained as well!

So please, put your feet up, read on, and enjoy! If you have any comments, feel free to leave them in the Comments section. I appreciate any and all feedback.