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Umeko Tsuda: Champion for Women’s Rights in Japan

220px-Umeko_Tsuda_at_graduation_1890In light of the dawning of the new Imperial era in Japan, the Japanese government has announced that it will be redesigning its bank notes. The new bank notes will feature the images of Eiichi Shibusawa (1840-1931), Shibasaburo Kitasato (1853-1931), and Umeko Tsuda (1864-1929). Tsuda will be the second women in history to be honored by having her portrait grace the front of a Japanese bank note. The first was Ichiyo Higuchi (the pen name of Japan’s first prominent female author, Natsuko Higuchi).

In a traditionally patriarchal society, this is quite an achievement. So what does it take for a Japanese woman to break free from the barriers imposed upon her by a male dominated society and earn recognition? In Umeko Tsuda’s case, she was the first Japanese woman to study abroad under the sponsorship of the Japanese government. She went on to become a great educator and the founder of one of the oldest women’s colleges in Japan. Further, she was one of the few Japanese philanthropists of her generation to champion the movement to enlighten women and improve their social standing through education.

Tsuda was born in Tokyo as the second daughter of a progressive agriculturist and strong proponent of the westernization and Christianization of Japan. Her birth took place during a transitional period in Japanese history, as the country left behind its feudal government system and embraced the Meiji era. She was sent to the United States in 1871, as one of the five girls who accompanied Tomomi Iwakura on the Iwakura Mission (a Japanese diplomatic voyage to the United States and Europe conducted between 1871 and 1873). One purpose of the Iwakura Mission was to cultivate Japanese girls in Western ways; they were to become models of “ideal womanhood” and thus help to usher in a new and modernized Japanese nation.

She studied at Georgetown Collegiate Institute, where she learned English rather quickly. After graduation, she entered Archer Institute, an institution which catered to the daughters of politicians and local bureaucrats. Tsuda returned to Japan in 1882, when she was nineteen years old. Her time in the United States had fostered her intelligence and independence, and upon her return she anguished over the position of women in Japanese society. Even her father, who was relatively westernized, still clung to traditional patriarchal authoritarianism.

Although the Meiji government had promoted girls’ education, the curricula did not emphasize the development of women’s intelligence and personality, but rather trained women to support their husbands and children obediently. Tsuda decided that she would devote her life to Japanese women’s higher education. One of her most significant philanthropic activities was to found a scholarship for Japanese women. She also published several theses and made public speeches about the status of Japanese women.

In 1900, she opened Joshi Eigaku Juku (The Women’s Institute for English Studies). She introduced western-style education, which included class discussions about current topics, and taught liberal arts subjects. She also emphasized building students’ personalities and encouraging their creativity. When the school faced a severe funding problem, Tsuda devoted her time to fundraising, teaching at other schools, and tutoring the daughters of her friends in order to support herself and the school. Her efforts paid off and in 1903 the school was approved as a vocational school by the Ministry of Education. Gradually the school became prosperous and its graduates entered society as professional women.

Unfortunately for Tsuda, her health suffered from all of the hard work and she suffered a stroke. She passed away in 1929 at the age of 66. Joshi Eigaku Juku changed its name to Tsuda Eigaku Juku in 1933 and, after World War II, was known as Tsuda College. It is still one of the most prestigious women’s institutes of higher education in Japan.



Japan’s Honpo-ji Temple and Its Tomb Dedicated to Rakugo

Nihon_arekore_01533_Hanashi_zuka_100_cl.jpgSituated near the Tawara-machi subway station on the Tokyo Metro Ginza line between Ueno and Asakusa, you will find an intimate little Buddhist temple known as Honpo-ji. What makes this temple so interesting is not its serene statues of Buddhist deities nor its ancient moss-covered stone lanterns, but its unusual link to wartime censorship.

Honpo-ji was once located in the Hatcho-bori area but the compound was completely burned down during the March 2, 1657 Furisode Fire. More commonly known as the Great Fire of Meireki, it lasted for three days, destroyed 60-70% of Edo (modern-day Tokyo), and claimed the lives of more than 100,000 Edoites. The temple was subsequently rebuilt in Asakusa.

Although censorship (Ken-etsu) existed in Japan as far back as the Edo period, censors exercised a particularly heavy hand during the wartime years; from the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931 to the end of World War II in 1945. Naturally, anything deemed detrimental to the war effort was banned and the ban extended to include rakugo. Rakugo which literally translates to “fallen words,” is a form of Japanese entertainment involving a lone storyteller. The rakugo artist conveys a story using only a paper fan and a small cloth as props, and his skills as a storyteller.

The censors in war-time Japan felt that rakugo stories about love and stories that seemed effeminate would weaken the fighting spirit of the people. Therefore, out of the various texts used by the hanashika (professional comic/rakugo storyteller) they selected 53 to be banned. These stories were about the pleasure quarters/ red-light districts, sake, mistresses, etc., all deemed demoralizing and degenerate by the censors. Stories such as “Akegarasu,” “Gonin mawashi,” and “Miiratori” which had been considered masterpieces of Edo literature were all banned.

The hanashika were deeply saddened by the fact that the popular stories which they loved to tell and which provided them with a means to earn a living had been eliminated. Then a famous rakugo critic, Nomura Mumeian, suggested that the storytellers erect a tomb (Hanashi-zuka) for the banned stories on the grounds of Honpo-ji. In 1941, storytellers did just that and they buried the 53 stories in the tomb. Every year thereafter, the hanashika gathered at the tomb to offer their prayers to the “dead stories”.

The Allied bombing campaigns over Tokyo significantly damaged Honpo-ji. Two hundred hanashika proposed to rebuild the temple and they each contributed a stone block to build a fence around it. They managed to erect a fence measuring approximately seven feet high and almost thirty feet long. Each stone block bears the name of the contributor. Visitors to the temple today can read the names of all of the prominent storytellers in Japan at the time.


When the war ended, so did the ban on the stories. In September of 1946, a revival festival featuring the previously banned stories was held in front of the Hanashi-zuka. The banned scripts buried in the tomb were later replaced by the stories that were permitted to be performed during he war.

Today, rakugo storytellers still visit the Hanashi-zuka and offer their prayers for the unfortunate stories.

Excerpt from “Asia’s Masonic Reformation” – Bushido, Shinto, and Freemasonry

719924440As Japan came under many foreign influences, which subsequently led to the country’s modernization, history paved the path for another foreign element to gain a foothold in a country that had once isolated itself from the West.  Freemasonry had spread quickly in both Europe and America; therefore, it was just a question of time before it spread to Japan as well.

It is believed that the first Freemason to visit Japan was a Dutch surgeon, scholar, merchant-trader, and ambassador named Isaac Titsingh. Titsingh was initiated as a Freemason in Batavia in 1772. Freemasons belonging to the Dutch East India Company and stationed in Dejima or Canton prior to 1800 had often been initiated in or were members of La Fidèle Sincérité (established in 1771) or Lodge La Vertueuse (established in 1769) in Batavia, the capital city of the Dutch East Indies (modern day Jakarta in Indonesia).

Freemasonry was not uncommon in the Netherlands. The first Dutch lodge was founded in The Hague in 1734, followed by a Grand Lodge in 1735. During the 18th and 19th centuries, several hundred lodges were founded in the Netherlands and its overseas trading posts.

The founding of the overseas lodges primarily served to spread Freemasonry across the globe and provide additional funds for the grand lodges. Between 1757 and 1837 dozens of Dutch lodges were established in India, Ceylon, Java, Malaysia, and Japan, while Dutch Freemasons were also members of an international lodge in Canton, China.

Titsingh was a senior official of the Dutch East India Company, officially known as the Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie (VOC). He, along with men like Archibald Mesterton, Pieter Romberg, Claes Grill, Andreas Everardus van Braam Houckgeest, and Joost Schouten served as important links in the Masonic network between the Netherlands and Southeast Asia. The VOC was so powerful that it possessed pseudo-governmental powers, which included the ability to wage war, imprison and execute convicts, negotiate treaties, strike its own coins, and establish colonies. Therefore, the VOC played a crucial role in the business, military, political, and the exploratory maritime history of the world.

A comparison of the enlistment records of the Dutch East India Company with the membership lists of lodges in India, Ceylon, and Canton reveals that between 1757 and 1800, 20 to 30 percent of the company’s high ranking officers were Freemasons.

Isaac Titsingh traveled to Japan three times: in 1779, 1781, and 1784. As the head of the Dutch trading post in Nagasaki, he formed lasting friendships with influential Japanese citizens and scholars.

Upon examining Japan’s evolution from a closed country to a free-trading, modern nation, it becomes apparent that the traders, many of whom were associated with Freemasonry, played a crucial role. One trader in particular was highly instrumental in helping to cast off the age of feudalism and usher in the modern age.  His name was Thomas Blake Glover.

© 2018 Kristine Ohkubo

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John Heinrich Detlef Rabe: The Schindler or the Sugihara of China


During times of war, man demonstrates the utmost cruelty toward his fellow man. However, during these violent times, there also emerges a few good souls who demonstrate caring and compassion toward other human beings.

A majority of us have read or heard about Oskar Schindler, the German industrialist and former member of the Nazi party who is credited with saving the lives of 1,200 Jews during World War II.  There was also a man named Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese government official who served as vice consul in Lithuania, credited with having helped 6,000 Jews. There is one more name that deserves to be added to the list, that is the name of John Rabe, a German businessman and Nazi Party member, who is best known for sheltering an estimated 200,000 Chinese from slaughter during the Battle of Nanjing (Second Sino-Japanese War).

Born in Hamburg, Germany on November 23, 1882, John was a loyal Nazi and served as the Deputy Group Leader of the Nationalist Socialist Party in Nanjing. He journeyed to China in 1908 and was employed by Siemens AG China Corporation in 1911. His employment with Siemens enabled him to travel to several cities within China prior to settling in Nanjing in 1931. At the time there were many Westerners residing in Nanjing either conducting trade or involved in missionary work.

When the Second Sino-Japanese War broke out and the Japanese Army approached Nanjing, all but twenty-two foreigners fled the city. On November 22, 1937 as the Japanese Army advanced on Nanjing, Rabe, along with the remaining foreigners, organized the International Committee for the Nanking Safety Zone and created the Nanking Safety Zone (Nanjing was formerly known as Nanking). The safety zone was established in the western quarter of the city. The Japanese government had agreed not to attack parts of the city where Chinese military forces did not exist, and the members of the International Committee for the Nanking Safety Zone attempted to persuade the Chinese government to move all their troops out of the area. They were partially successful.

On December 1, 1937, the Nanjing Mayor ordered all Chinese citizens remaining in Nanjing to relocate to the Safety Zone. After issuing the order, the Mayor fled the city.  When Nanjing fell to the Japanese forces on December 13, 1937, there were 500,000 civilians that had remained in the city.

According to Rabe, the violence which resulted from the Japanese forces overtaking the city caused the deaths of 50,000 to 60,000 civilians. Today, the estimates vary greatly depending on sources, but some have placed civilian casualties as high as 300,000.

On February 28, 1938, Rabe departed for Germany. He brought with him films and photographs documenting the ferocity of the Japanese forces. He proceeded to give lectures in Berlin and wrote a letter to Hitler to try to persuade him to use his influence to prevent further violence. As a result, Rabe was detained and interrogated by the Gestapo and his letter was never delivered to Hitler. With the intervention of Siemens AG, Rabe was eventually released and forbidden to lecture or write about the topic of Nanjing.

After the war, Rabe was arrested first by the Soviets and then by the British. He was released after an intense interrogation process. He was later denounced for his Nazi Party membership by an acquaintance and stripped of his work permit. Unable to work to support his family and with his savings depleted, Rabe’s family survived in a one-room apartment by selling their Chinese art collection.

In 1948, the citizens of Nanjing learned of the family’s destitution and they raised an equivalent of US$ 2 ,000 to aid them. From mid-1948 until the Communist takeover, the citizens of Nanjing also sent a care package of food each month.

John Rabe died of a stroke on January 5, 1950. His tombstone was relocated from Berlin to Nanjing in 1997, where it stands today at the massacre memorial site.

John Rabe’s story presents a paradox. He is remembered as a great humanitarian despite remaining a loyal member of the Nazi Party. In the end it is important to remember that it is not about race, culture, religion, political beliefs, or any other factor used to divide man. It is about accepting the fact that we are all human and we should treat our fellow man with kindness and compassion. Only when we recognize that we are all one family inhabiting this planet together will peace truly be achieved.

Excerpt From: Asia’s Masonic Reformation

“Confucianism, Taoism, and Freemasonry”

The small seal of the Swedish East India Company during the fourth charter 1806 to 1813. Museum of Gothenburg. (Public domain)

The Silk Road commonly refers to the ancient network of trade routes connecting the East and the West. The Han dynasty extended the Central Asian section of the trade routes around 114 BC aided by the missions and explorations of the Chinese imperial envoy Zhang Qian.

Though silk was the major trade item, the Silk Road also served as a route for cultural trade among the civilizations along its path.

This cultural trade was also responsible for Freemasonry gaining a foothold in Chinese society. The craft spread like wildfire throughout Europe during the 18th century. From that point, armed forces personnel and merchants who were Freemasons brought Freemasonry to the United States, India, and the East.

Freemasonry reached China on July 8, 1759. The Prins Carl, a merchant ship belonging to the Swedish East India Company, docked at a port in Canton (Guangzhou) with Captain Balthazar Grubb in charge.vi The men on board were Freemasons who carried with them a document which gave them permission to gather and hold meetings wherever they came ashore. According to records, the first meeting was held in late 1759.

The Swedish East India Company (SOIC) was founded in Gothenburg, Sweden in 1731 following the successes of the Dutch East India Company and the British East India Company.

The Grill family were iron-masters who were based all over Europe, and they were also influential members and directors of the Swedish East India Company. Claes Grill, the son of Abraham Grill II, was a Freemason and a member of the London Emulation Lodge of Improvement.

When the two rival English lodges united in 1813, the Lodge of Reconciliation was created with an equal number of chosen representatives from each of the lodges for the purpose of maintaining uniformity in the making, passing, and raising of Freemasons throughout England. The lodge was dissolved in 1816, but the Emulation Lodge of Improvement was formed to continue the work of the Lodge of Reconciliation.

Jean Abraham Grill, the nephew of Claes Grill, was a merchant, supercargo (a person employed on board a vessel by the owner of the cargo carried on the ship), iron-master at Godegård, and eventually a director of the Swedish East India Company. He journeyed to China twice as the representative of the SOIC. His uncle was already engaged in the lucrative trade in Canton and encouraged his nephew to do the same. Jean lived in Canton and Macao for a total of almost ten years, conducting trade for the company and paving the way for the arrival of three Swedish ships. While in China, Jean, along with his partner, Michael Grubb, smuggled opium into the country from India.

Jean Grill had started a successful private company in partnership with the older and more experienced Michael Grubb, one of the directors of the SOIC and founder of the first Swedish trading office in Canton. They traded in Canton and Macao, which was technically against the rules and regulations of the SOIC charter. Grill took advantage of the fact that his father was a director of the SOIC, and until his father’s death, utilized SOIC vessels for his own purposes.

The Grubb-Grill company used Chinese junks to trade with India, Java, Indochina, the Philippines, and Japan. The company engaged in the trade of Japanese silk, pigments, spices, gold and silver threads, pearls, and lacquer-ware. However, the most profitable product in that trade was opium. Consequently, Jean Grill became Sweden’s first major drug runner.

Copyright ©2018 Kristine Ohkubo

New Book: “Asia’s Masonic Reformation -Freemasonry’s Impact On The Westernization And Subsequent Modernization Of Asia”

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Shrouded by mystery, misinformation and conspiracy, Freemasonry remains one of the least understood organizations of all time. It appears incomprehensible to most people because it contains a constantly evolving and adapting ideology defined by a commitment to universal brotherhood and self-improvement. Freemasonry is not governed by a single governing body but is made up of a  loose network of groups, known as lodges, that fall under the jurisdiction of regional and national grand lodges.

As of this writing, the brotherhood consists of over six million members worldwide and has included some of the most powerful men in history.i While Freemasonry has enjoyed unprecedented growth since its development in the 18th century, it still remains inaccessible to women (although other corresponding bodies, such as the Order of the Eastern Star, admit women who are wives and female relatives of Freemasons).

Two common beliefs endure among all Freemasons. The first is that each man has a responsibility to improve himself while being devoted to his family, country, and fraternity. The second is that each man has a responsibility to help make the world a better place. These beliefs have been the basis which have enabled Freemasons to be catalysts for change throughout history.

As Western culture and influence penetrated the far corners of the world, Freemasons were notably at the forefront, ushering in rapid change, modernization, and enlightenment. Was this merely coincidental, or was it by design?

I invite you to follow along and reach your own conclusion as I present you with the details and irrefutable historical facts. Learn how the West has had a profound influence on the collective and diverse customs and traditions maintained by the numerous ethnic groups of Asia, resulting in the westernization and subsequent modernization of that part of the world. It is undeniable that where the West has left its footprints on the sands of time, the Freemasons have often had a presence.


Japanese New Year Traditions: Kagami Mochi (鏡餅)


In an earlier article, I introduced you to a traditional Japanese New Year decoration known as kadomatsu (pine gate). Now, I would like to discuss another decoration you often see known as kagami mochi (mirror rice cake). The decoration which consists of two round mochi (rice cake), the smaller placed atop the larger, and a daidai (Japanese bitter orange), first appeared during the Muromachi period (14th-16th century). The mochi cakes sit on a stand called a sanpo. There is a sheet placed on top of the stand on which the mochi cakes rest called a shihobeni.

Legend states that the sun goddess, Amaterasu, retreated from the world and hid in a cave, plunging the world into darkness. A wise priest used a round copper mirror (kagami) to draw Amaterasu out of the cave and light was once again restored to the world. It is said that the round shape of the mochi resembles the mirror which attracted the sun goddess. Hence, kagami mochi symbolizes the renewal of light and energy which occurs at the beginning of the new year. The two rice cakes also represent the year that just passed and the new one that is about to begin. The word daidai, although spelled differently, sounds similar to the phrase which means “generation to generation.”

Kagami mochi are placed in various locations throughout the house and used to celebrate long life, the bonds of family, and the continuity of generations. They are usually set out during the end of the year and displayed until kagami biraki (kagami breaking day). Kagami biraki takes place on or around January 11th and it is the day when the mochi are broken into pieces with a hammer, cooked and eaten, often as part of a traditional soup called ozoni. The mochi is never cut using a knife as that would symbolize severing family ties.

These days, you can find kagami mochi made out of plastic at various supermarkets and ¥100 stores throughout Japan.


Japanese New Year Traditions: Kadomatsu (門松)


In just ten short days, we will be saying sayonara to 2018 and welcoming the New Year with great hopes and ambitions. In Japan, New Year is referred to as shogatsu or oshogatsu and is regarded as the most important holiday. Businesses generally shut down from January 1 to January 3, and families gather to celebrate and spend time together.

If you have spent the holidays in Japan, you may have noticed a unique decoration placed in pairs in front of houses and businesses. This is called a “kadomatsu” or “gate pine.” The kadomatsu is a traditional Japanese decoration which serves as temporary housing for spirits or kami. Designs for kadomatsu vary by region, but typically consist of pine, bamboo, and ume (plum) tree sprigs. During the Edo period, the kadomatsu was used to honor and receive the kami of the harvest and to bestow the ancestors’ blessings. Today, the tradition continues and most families will decorate the front of their homes with kadomatsu from December 26 until January 7 (January 15 during the Edo period). Traditionally the kadomatsu was placed outside of the home on December 13, however since decorating a Christmas tree has become increasingly popular in Japan, the kadomatsu is now placed outside after Christmas Day. After January 15, the kadomatsu is burned to appease the kami and to release them.

Each element incorporated into the design of the kadomatsu holds a special meaning. Pine (matsu) is the principle plant used in the decoration. Since ancient times, the pine was believed to be the place where the spirits dwelled. The bamboo (take) is cut into three pieces and set at different heights to represent heaven, humanity, and earth. It is said that the bamboo is where one could wish the troubles of life away because it always grows straight towards the sky. The plum (ume) trees flower early in the year when it is still relatively cold. The ume blossoms are considered to be strong and durable. Hence, the elements used in the design of the kadomatsu represent longevity, prosperity, and steadfastness, respectively.

The kadomatsu is always placed in pairs, representing male and female. The Japanese people typically refrain from setting up the kadomatsu on December 29th and the 31st. This is because the 29th is believed to be unlucky due to its pronunciation which denotes suffering. The 31st is considered “ichiya kazari” meaning one-night decoration. It is considered impolite as it demonstrates that you have placed the kadomatsu outside at the last minute.

Now you have a basic understanding of the use of kadomatsu during the New Year. Don’t forget to wish your Japanese friends, “Yoi otoshi o omukae kudasai (よいお年をお迎えください).” It literally translates to “I wish that you will have a good new year.” This is a phrase which is used on December 31st. From Jan. 1 through Jan. 3, and even up to the middle of January, you say “Akemashite omedetou gozaimasu (あけましておめでとうございま).”

Christmas Eve – The Most Romantic Day In Japan


In my last two posts, I have attempted to introduce my readers to the unique holiday customs in Japan. Like all Western customs that have been introduced in Japan, Christmas has been tweaked to represent something inimitably Japanese.

I have already discussed the popularity of Kentucky Fried Chicken and Christmas cake, now it is time to introduce you to one more aspect of Christmas which differs significantly from the way in which we celebrate the holiday in the West. As a matter of fact, in Japan, Christmas Eve is celebrated more than Christmas Day. In the West, Christmas is a holy day and generally revolves around family. By contrast Christmas is not a religious holiday in Japan; instead the Japanese view it as a time to spread happiness. With this in mind, Christmas Eve is viewed as the most romantic day of the year in Japan. It is a day which is very similar to Valentine’s Day where couples enjoy a romantic meal at a restaurant, exchange gifts, and go for walks to look at the Christmas lights. For the Japanese, New Year is the time one devotes to spending with family.

Consequently, restaurants are booked to capacity in advance and Japan’s major cities are brilliantly draped with festive holiday lights. Couples wine, dine, and take romantic strolls before ending up at a nice hotel for the night. For singles, this time of year is the best time to find a partner. In the weeks leading up to Christmas Eve, you are highly likely to get a date as everyone who is single is trying to find someone to spend a romantic evening with on the big day.

With all that being said, Christmas Day is not a national holiday in Japan. However, since December 23rd is a public holiday recognizing the reigning Emperor’s birthday, most people take a few days off  between December 23rd and New Year’s Day to celebrate and spread happiness.

So, if you are planning to spend Christmas in Japan, why not do as the Japanese do and enjoy a beautifully romantic evening with that special someone? If you would like suggestions on where to stroll with your beloved, areas like Omotesando, Ginza, and Roppongi are absolutely stunning during this time of year!