On Japanese stories: Momotarou & Byakkotai

In the video I uploaded yesterday on YouTube, I told the old Japanese story of Momotarou. It`s not 100% true to the original story, in as much as there is an original story, but the main gist of it is still correct as far as I`m aware.

As sarcastic as I may be in the video, I`m quite fond of stories, as is obvious by the amount of reading and movie watching and TV show watching I do on a daily basis. I even have a job in it, through being a guide at the caves (my favourite part of the tour is still the story of the brothers Walram and Reginald who fell in love with the same girl, Alexis. But that`s a different story for a different time).

I`m also very fond of Japan and all of its strange histories and stories. Even after 5 years of studying Japanese, I still always seem to come back to it.

However, my favourite story of Japan is not Momotarou. It`s an entertaining story, yes. It`s also the only picturebook I own, I think, which is largely how it ended up getting turned into a video.

Actually, most of my favourite stories of Japan can be traced back to one specific period in Japanese history: the Meiji restoration. Starting at 1868, this was when the Tokugawa period of shoguns and daimyos and samurai ended, the emperor was restored (a very young, Western-oriented emperor at that), and the country was in chaos for a while before settling slowly for the more modern version we know today. Although the “true” modern version Japan didn`t show up until after WWII, there were signs of it appearing it between 1868 and WWII already.

One of my favourite historical subjects was from around this time, namely the Byakkotai. The Byakkotai was a group of young, mostly teenage, samurai, and their story is a very sad one. Sometimes I feel a bit guilty for it being one of my favourites, but I guess “like” is an easily misunderstood word in this situation. I have a lot of respect for this story, I should probably say.

I won`t go into it too deeply now, as I`ve talked for quite a bit already, but the Byakkotai was, as said, a group of young samurai. They were mostly teenagers, and as thus hadn`t had the chance to train all that much yet. They were meant as back-up groups, but ended up fighting as well. Still, they held their own against the enemy troops.

The entire Byakkotai consisted of 405 members, although it was split up into segments and smaller groups. One of these groups, of about 20 boys, had been cut off from the rest after a battle, and ended up on top of a hill that looked out over their town.
Here they saw smoke and fire coming from the city, from right where the castle was. Thinking the castle, and thus their lord, had fallen, they committed seppuku (a ritual way of killing yourself honourably).

However, it turned out it wasn`t the castle that had fallen, but instead the buildings around the castle were set on fire.

But the boys are now known for their loyalty to their lord, and for acting with so much bravery in such an extreme situation.

I`m still not sure why this story is so gripping to me. But somehow it is. I can never seem to forget about it.

And I don`t really want to either.

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