Excerpts from Cargo Cult


Book photoChapter 1

Kyoto 1874

Oda Tanaka paused at the dimly-lit timber teahouse opposite Nijo castle. The fortress was serenely elegant with its heavy stone ramparts and ornately tiled roofs. The oil lamps by the gate flickered in the chill wind and the falling snow. Ah, so much has changed since I was a young man. For he had journeyed days from a battle lost.

Having been absent from Kyoto for two years, Oda stared at the castle, reflecting on the place where he had served since his youth - before and after the last shogun Yoshinobu Tokugawa abdicated to the reigning emperor. In the face of increasing foreign intrusion, the resignation ended the shogunate rule of six hundred and fifty years and led to the Meiji restoration, after other feudal lords also relinquished their powers.

Oh, we were all so young and followed the youthful Lord Tokugawa in his noble ideals to modernise our country. But now, the samurai tradition is rapidly fading and so much of our life and culture is changing.

Oda felt somewhat conspicuous in his two-piece grey kamishomo, worn over his black silk kimono. His haori, a long wide sleeve woollen coat covered the top of his hakama, or long flowing trousers. Of slim medium build, Oda looked every bit a samurai warrior with his chonmage of hair, pulled back into a topknot over his mostly shaved head. Heavy brows brooded over intense eyes, a squat nose and strong jaw. His seventy-two-centimetre katana, tucked inside his red sash obi left little doubt of his place in society - a role largely historic, especially in Kyoto.

Heeya, Oda, is that you?” rang a familiar voice. Oda stiffened, hand to sword then relaxed as he recognised his old colleague Kaito Yoshida walking towards him. Kaito looked distinctive in his imperial soldier’s navy blue uniform adorned with brass buttons, a grey belt and finished with a peaked cap.

Konnichiwa, Kaito,” Oda replied and they hugged briefly. 

“Let’s go inside from this cold and talk about your travels,” said Kaito.

They strode into the teahouse crowded with merchants, soldiers, policemen and civic administrators conversing quietly, as a geisha played a three stringed samisen accompanied by drum and flute musicians.

“You look weary, Oda. How have you been?” Kaito placed his hands on the table and leaned forward slightly.

Oda looked into the long thin face of his friend. He glanced around the room before confiding, “Our world is changing, Kaito, and I fear I am loath to change with it.”

Kaito took a deep breath, whistling through his back teeth before replying, “Yes, it’s true, Oda. Many changes are underway and we don’t know where they may lead. But tell me, where have you been? What have you been doing since you left us?”

Oda recounted his dismay with the course of the Meiji rule, having served four years as an officer in the new imperial army. He told of his travels around the country looking for purpose, and how he ended up in Hizen to the south on the island of Kyushu.

“In Hizen I met Eto Shimpei who was also disillusioned with the direction of the Meiji government. An ex samurai like us, Shimpei-san had been a general in the imperial army and helped to crush the forces resisting the Meiji. He was appointed Minister of Justice just two years ago, and soon after became sangi, a councillor in the Daijo-kan, the Great Council, but  resigned not long after. Shimpei-san then formed a new political party critical of the government and called for the formation of a national assembly. It was at this time I met Eto Shimpei." 

“Yes, I know,” Kaito responded. “We all followed the progress of Shimpei-san as we hoped he would be able to influence the Great Council to restore the respect and financial status of the samurai class, even though most of us work for the new administration now.”

Oda glanced around the room in case anyone was listening in. Nobody was, though he still lowered his voice a little before continuing. “Many of us thought the Great Council would heed his advice. But when Shimpei-san failed and his political movement received little support outside of Hizen, a number of us encouraged him to gather an army of samurai to start a national insurrection. We had three thousand samurai and enjoyed initial success, thinking our small victories would attract more warriors from the other samurai strongholds in Kyushu.”

A graceful hostess appeared with their drinks of sake, placing them delicately on the table as Oda and Kaito gestured their appreciation.

“Not long after, we lost a major battle,” Oda continued, “and Shimpei-san fled to seek assistance from Takamori-san with his Satsuma samurai based in Kagoshima not far away. We fought on, though heavily outnumbered and reluctantly accepted defeat by the end of February, just fourteen days after the campaign began.”

Kaito nodded, his face stern adding, “Our garrison was poised to support the army, before we heard the rebellion had been overcome. And then we heard Shimpei-san had been captured.”

“That’s right. He could not garner support and was seized in a boat on his way to Tokyo. Some of the councillors, including Kido Takayoshi wanted to pardon Shimpei-san and have him serve in the Taiwan expedition. However, Okubo Toshimichi insisted on a military tribunal, which led to the beheading of Shimpei-san and the public display of his severed head as an example.”

“It seems another civil war could erupt at any moment,” Kaito lamented. “The three great samurai leaders of the new administration  Toshimichi, Takamori and Takayoshi have very different views about the direction of the Meiji government. Takayoshi-san is not happy about sending an army to Taiwan and may resign. Takamori-san was displeased with the Meiji government’s courting of foreign powers and resigned last year over the decision not to invade Korea.”

“I agree, Kaito. There is an ongoing struggle within the Council and Toshimichi-san enjoys the balance of power at the moment. However Takamori-san still commands the strong Satsuma samurai base around Kagoshima. I hear he has established over one hundred camps in the area where they’re teaching modern weaponry and artillery technique.”

“Yes, we have heard. I don’t think the government will stand by and watch Takamori-san develop his own power base, even though he swears his allegiance to the emperor. What are you planning to do?”

“I’m not sure. After the battles at Hizen, I wonder if the old ways are gone forever and we simply have to adjust. But for me it’s hard. I long for the old traditions - bushido, respect for the samurai, and our Japanese culture. The foreigners bring new weapons and new trade agreements which are changing our way of life. How is your life at Nijo castle in the army?”

“I sympathise with you, Oda, but yes, I think we must adjust. The world is changing and we have to adapt. Besides, I now have a family. Six months ago, Reiko gave birth to a little baby boy we named Daiki.”

“Heeya, Kaito! Kanpai! May you and your family enjoy good health and long life,” and they heartily downed their sake.

“Thank you, Oda. Being an officer in the army is not so bad and gets better as you progress. I’m a captain now. We’re learning about new Western cannons and guns as well as modern field strategy. And while we don’t have the same respect and honour as a samurai, it is a good life.”

“I’m glad you’re happy, Kaito, but I’m not sure your path suits me. I’m confused and need some guidance for these turbulent times. I’ll visit the abbot at Ryoanji temple before deciding what to do next. I might re-join the army, or start a small business. Possibly join Saigo Takamori in the south to work towards changing the path of the Meiji regime.”

“Maybe you need a woman!” said Kaito smiling. “But until you meet the lady of your dreams, do take care. And remember as a samurai you will be challenged at the gates of Ryoanji by army sentries. You would be aware the new regime is promoting their version of Shinto and making life difficult for the Buddhist monks everywhere. Ryoanji is no exception.”

“Good advice, my friend. Though I’m not ready for courtship,” Oda replied with a grin, “I’ll be careful and will approach Ryoanji temple from the rooftops so as to avoid the sentries.”

After another sake and discussions about Oda’s travels and Kaito’s family and life in the army, the friends parted company.

“If we ever meet in the battlefield, Oda, our friendship will rise above the cause we serve. Until we meet again, safe travels.”

Oda strolled from the teahouse along a narrow, snow-covered roadway pondering his future. He continued towards Ryoanji temple as the city bustled in the early evening with people returning home from work. Hawkers and workers pushed timber barrows loaded with produce through the streets and spicy aromas from fish grilled over charcoal fires wafted through the air.

He thought about life as a samurai, the rapidly fading Japanese customs of old and the shape of the new Japan. Oda sensed the mixed reactions of different people walking the streets once they recognised him as a samurai - feelings of fear, admiration and sorrow. He was used to admiration, even a little fear but the looks of sorrow were haunting and disturbed him.

Oda did not see himself as a rebel or an outcast at all - more a guardian of the rightful way of life for society amid foreign imperialism and rising Japanese nationalism - ever since the people from afar came to our shores with their impressive ships, big guns and enticing goods to trade. Is it possible to preserve our old traditions while adapting to the new mercantile world?

The samurai had not only lost their status and privileges, but now the new government was considering whether they should stop wearing their swords. Is this the way it has to be? Is this the rightful place for the class that protected Japanese life for hundreds of years?

Nearing the Ryoanji area of Kyoto, Oda noticed a few army sentries chattering as they left a modest dining house. He was nearing the temple and did not wish to be questioned. The Meiji government was monitoring Buddhist activities and a samurai entering a temple could cause trouble, depending on the temperament of the guards on duty.

Oda followed the soldiers a while before recognising a building he knew was close to the outskirts of the temple grounds. He glanced both ways to ensure no one was watching before sprinting towards the timber wall. With increasing momentum, he continued up the wall a few paces then leapt in the air, twisting one hundred and eighty degrees to grab hold of an eave, then he quickly swung onto the terracotta roof.

The snow drifted lightly in the moonlit evening as Oda stepped nimbly along the rooftops, his kamishomo swirling in the breeze. He kept a close eye on the soldiers below, knowing they would be relieving others and he was keen to see where they would be stationed.

Oda ventured as far as he could on the rooftops and hovered above the big pond in front of the temple. He paused and knelt low on the tiled roof to watch the returning soldiers. A forest of cherry blossoms, cedars and pines encircled the temple complex. He observed two of the sentries relieve positions around the pond and two more head for the main temple entrance.  

Unnoticed by the soldiers, Oda vaulted from the roof to the ground, landing silently and he quickly scurried along the undergrowth near the pond before veering towards the trees near the temple.

He waited by the foliage and as the two fresh sentries finished talking to those about to be relieved, Oda hoisted himself into a cedar tree, then limb by limb climbed noiselessly, until he was high above the remaining guards. He rested and watched one of the soldiers wander to his position by another temple gate.

Oda considered his options. He could leap down behind the guard, and as the soldier turned drawing his gun, could kick him hard in the chin. This would both silence the guard and knock him senseless to the ground before he could use the gun. But Oda didn’t want to leave any injury or evidence of his visit, lest he brought trouble to the monks inside.

Alternatively, he thought, he could distract the soldier by making peculiar noises, projected to lead the guard well away from the temple, then scamper through the dark forest to the temple entrance.

But again he did not wish to arouse suspicion and so did what he had enjoyed so much as a child – he swung from tree to tree making birdcalls as he went. With the falling snow as an added distraction, the sentry was oblivious as Oda leapt from a pine tree down into the walled rock garden of the temple complex.

Snow covered the enigmatic rock and sand garden of Ryoanji temple. The simple yet striking garden is thirty metres long and ten metres wide with no trees or shrubs, as the garden is constructed in the ‘dry landscape’ style known as karesansui.

The garden was established not long after the temple in the late 15th century. It contains fifteen irregularly shaped rocks of different sizes placed on a bed of white gravel and sand - in such a manner that visitors can only see fourteen of them at once, no matter from which angle the garden is viewed. Only when one attains spiritual enlightenment as a result of deep Zen meditation, can one see the last invisible stone.

As Oda scampered around the perimeter of the garden, towards the anteroom of the hojo, the abbot’s quarters, he recalled the many hours spent in the garden talking with the abbot. Oda hoped be would now be available to speak with him again.

He passed candles flickering in the entrance and caught flagrant drifts of incense as he slowly climbed the few stairs. Oda rang a small bell on a table, waited a little then heard the patter of steps from the adjacent quarters.  

Abbot Eisai entered the room dressed in a black robe or koromo over his white kimono and wore white socks and sandals given the cold weather. On a ceremonial occasion he would be wearing his gold bib, or rakusu and a straw hat resembling those seen in the rice paddies. Eisai halted and smiled as he recognised Oda. They bowed low to one another then embraced as old friends.

“Much time has passed, Oda, since I saw you last. Where have you been and what news do you bring?”

Oda recounted his restless odyssey after leaving Nijo castle two years before, disillusioned with the path of the Meiji regime. He described the horror of the last battle in Hizen – the noble samurai losing against the overwhelming, well-armed government forces; his snow bound journey back to Kyoto and his current state of unease.

“We live in difficult times,” said the abbot. “You would know of the Meiji policy to undermine Buddhism and promote their version of nationalistic Shinto. This is making it very hard for many of our monks to remain in the temples. Some of them have closed or become Shinto shrines. We are fortunate to be a major temple, but even our situation is precarious.”

“I have heard of these closures, sensei, and am distressed by the effects,” replied Oda. “Why are they doing this?”

“Much of the policy is nationalistic, moving away from the Chinese influence of Buddhism. Some of it exacts revenge against the power that Buddhism has held over the centuries. Together with the samurai - old scores are being settled by the other religions of Shinto, Neo Confucianism, Christianity as well as the Kokugaku movement.”

The abbot paused before continuing, “But we will prevail. Buddhism is an adaptive code and the people receive comfort from our rituals. We can co-exist with Shinto, as we share the same Hindu roots. The religions are intertwined. These turbulent times will pass but not before more Buddhist temples are closed or forced to share their domain with the Shinto religion. What about you, Oda? What are you going to do?”

“I don’t know, sensei. I’ve thought of re-joining the army but find the cause distasteful. I do not wish to become ronin, a masterless wanderer in search of a livelihood, so I might join Saigo Takamori in Kagoshima. I would welcome your thoughts, sensei.”

“Hehe, Takamori-san is a strange one. A loyal servant of the Japanese people and also his lover, the geisha Butahime, known as Princess Pig,” said Abbot Eisai with a glint in his eye.

“Yes, I heard about his geisha lover. The samurai lord is human after all. Sensei, what is your counsel for me?”

“There is little doubt of the Lord Takamori’s sincerity and he still wields considerable power but I am unsure of his destiny. Follow your heart, Oda, but be very careful. You are a good person and Japan needs people like you.”

“Thank you, sensei. I will reflect deeply over the next few days and decide my path accordingly. Now let us walk around the temple as I do not know when I will pass this way again.”

Together the Abbot Eisai and the Samurai Oda strolled slowly around the temple, admiring the beauty of the architecture, the simple yet exquisitely crafted furnishings and the intricate colourful sliding panels, collectively known as fusuma, adorning the walls. They paused at the Four Elegant Accomplishments, a series of four panels depicting the deeds of various Chinese nobles.

“They are wondrous are they not?” remarked Eisai. 

“They most certainly are,” Oda replied as he studied the fusuma closely. The panels displayed colourfully robed nobles in different poses, set in a stylised landscape of dark green trees amidst rocks and mountains; painted on gold leaf.

“So serene, and they tell the story of sages long past,” Eisai added. 

Oda moved over to the other side of the wall in the dannanoma, or patron’s room, to another fusuma. One of the four panels depicted a small party of Buddhist monks in colourful robes strolling through a forest. Another revealed samurai warriors in a garden with Mount Fuji in the background. There was a panel depicting the Buddha seated amongst trees with birds swirling overhead and the last one portrayed samurai warriors as well as Buddhist monks in a garden together. 

“This is my favourite fusuma.”

“Yes, it is indeed a treasure,” remarked Eisai. “Painted by Kano Takanobu in the early 17th century - we call this fusuma Path and Order. The panels are unique depictions of Buddhist monks and the ruling Samurai.”

Oda paused by a panel which portrayed the Buddha seated on a bench in the garden. “Ah, this is so powerful, sensei! Thank you for your wise counsel and one more look at these wondrous fusuma. I will now bid you farewell with renewed energy and a strong heart.”