• Takeshiro Matsuura, 1818–1880

The Emperor's Mistake

Benjamin Johnson
Only one famous person has ever come from Mikumo. In Japan, he is not as well known as he should be; in America, he is completely unknown. There is no Wikipedia page for him in English or Japanese. The only photograph of him, taken when he was an old and celebrated man, shows him seated in a chair with his hands in his lap, proudly wearing an Ainu necklace that sits on his shoulders like the mantle of a king and hangs down between his knees, almost touching the floor. His body and gaze are turned away from the camera. People who look askance when they are sitting for a portrait can appear defiant or distracted, but this man is inquisitive. Possibly he has never sat for a photo before. If so, it would explain the curiosity on his face; why his lips are parted and his head is tilted to the side; why, even as the photo is being taken, he seems to be asking the photographer how it works. Some aperture, a paper-covered window or an open shoji screen, lets in necessary sunlight.

The old man fidgets in his chair, annoying the young photographer.

Oji-san, please. Please sit still until I say that we are done. The shutter of the camera requires that you sit still for two minutes.

I’m not used to sitting in chairs, the old man remarks.  

You must not live in Tokyo, says the photographer, clearing his throat.


Three days later, Matsuura has an audience with the Emperor. Now that the island of Ezochi, just north of mainland Japan, has been annexed by Japan, it must have a new name. Matsuura has explored the island more than anybody else; he suggests the name “Hokkaido” in deference to the Ainu people, the indigenous people who call themselves “Kai”. The Emperor doesn’t like it - he wants a purely Japanese name - but out of respect for Matsuura, he will think it over.

For an explorer, Matsuura is not that well-traveled. Japan was sakoku, a closed country, for most of his life. Only fifteen years have passed since Commodore Perry sailed his nine American warships into Tokyo Bay.

The palatial reception room where the two men sit (Matsuura on the floor; the Emperor in an armchair) has a carpeted floor, painted walls and gilded decorations. Russian tea is served in a samovar after the meal.

From Czar Nicholas II, the Emperor boasts.

Matsuura opts to sit and eat his lunch on the carpet, a breach of etiquette that amuses the Emperor and horrifies the servants who bring the food and take it away. (In a tatami mat room, one may sit on the floor, but in a room with a carpet, one should sit in a chair). The men say little as they eat. Silence relaxes the Emperor, whose mood improves after lunch. He uses a napkin and is young, much younger than Matsuura. He wears a military uniform. The glasses and the slimness of his body lend him the aspect of a brilliant university student, a young man eager to impress his teacher and win respect. Overall, his appearance is impeccable and threatening. His smooth black hair is combed back and parted down the middle. His nascent beard is perfectly trimmed. Were he not a living God, Matsuura would think him vain.

The Americans have taken an interest in you, Matsuura. How, they ask me, did your man subjugate the native people without shedding blood? They cannot believe that you achieved this thing using mere diplomacy.

Matsuura listens. The Emperor studies him closely, unable to determine if he is flattered that the Americans know who he is. The Emperor’s intuition tells him no, he is not. Sitting in seiza on the floor, perfectly content, the old man looks at one with himself, absolved of all cares. He looks unmistakably like a buddha.

The pickles were delicious, Matsuura says after the meal. They must have come from Kyoto. Kyoto has the best pickles.

My father was born in Kyoto. He died there, too. The Emperor looks away. Have you tried ice cream yet, Matsuura? I hear that it is all the rage with the after-hours kabuki crowd. Some have no stomach for it but they eat it anyway. Late at night, one can see them throwing up on the bridges…

More likely they are drinking too much sake, Your Majesty.

Embarrassed, the Emperor changes the subject.

Do you like my uniform? The American ambassador gave it to me. General Chamberlain wore it at the Battle of Gettysburg. This, they tell me, is the Congressional Medal of Honor. This one is Russian, an Anna on the Neck...

The Emperor points out his medals as he speaks, indicating which one is which and where it is from. He sits in an upholstered armchair of carved walnut, a pair of spectacles on his face and white gloves on his hands. Holds forth with the confidence of a young man, a visionary and a living God, for he is all three. Matsuura kneels in seiza position before the Emperor, knees bent under him and his back ramrod straight. For an old man, he is in excellent health, capable of hiking mountains and lugging heavy equipment that would take the starch out of most men. The skin of his face, weathered with age and browned by the sun, is like parchment. His lively eyes and sharp ears take in everything; meanwhile, his mind suspends judgement.

Do you like my armchair? The Emperor asks.

Very much, Your Majesty.

A gift from Queen Victoria. I am told it is from Bath, an Ancient Roman city. You know I admire the Romans and the English very much.

What happens inside an Emperor? What is his secret life? Like Marco Polo sitting before and listening to Kublai Khan, Matsuura sits before and listens to the Emperor. Theirs is a private conversation held in the Tokyo Imperial Palace (formerly known as Edo Castle). It is a fall afternoon in 1868.

All countries are self-interested; none more so than the Americans. They can be stupid, unbelievably stupid for such a powerful country. But they are also intrepid, resourceful and strong-willed. Like you, Matsuura. They say that in 1803 when Lewis and Clark explored the American West, Thomas Jefferson believed that they might find wooly mammoth. My father was similarly ignorant about Ezochi when he dispatched you to explore it all those years ago. Your study of the island and the Ainu people, as well as the diplomatic relations that you fostered with them, were instrumental in bringing about a bloodless annexation. My royal cartographer claims that your maps of the coast are among the best he has ever seen. Truly, you are a special, multi-talented person, Matsuura, and you have done your country a great service.

I loved the Ainu, Your Majesty. Matsuura speaks in keigo or honorific Japanese. It has been two years since he used it last. Even his Japanese is rusty. The dialect of the Ainu people is the language that he dreams in and the one that he mutters to himself whenever he has misplaced something or has lost his way. They were some of my dearest friends. One of the men, a tribal chieftain—

The Emperor interrupts him. The Ainu? the Emperor asks, raising a beetling eyebrow. The Ainu are stupid, hairy barbarians.

Matsuura casts down his eyes.

I will tell you what will happen next. We will civilize the Ainu on Ezochi. The Emperor pauses and lifts a finger, correcting himself. Hokkaido.

Matsuura nods, but dare not lift up his eyes.

We will civilize the Ainu on Hokkaido. After we have thrown the Russians off of the island of Sakhalin, we will civilize the Ainu there, as well. We will annex Korea, Taiwan and Manchuria. All of these places will be renamed. They will be renamed. Someday I will hang my curtains in the Summer Palace in Beijing. I will plant my own hedgerows in the Imperial gardens. I will bring order to Asia. The Japanese people are a rising sun. We are lit from within, and we must shine our great light—not just for ourselves, but for others—into every dark corner of the world.

Matsuura nods. The Emperor, appearing satisfied with what he has said and with Matsuura’s obeisance, relaxes somewhat. Matsuura is an old man and the Emperor is a living God. The Emperor is the future of Japan and Matsuura is the past. Who can challenge the future? The present, perhaps. But not the past.

Matsuura is a guest, but he is not an honored guest. The Emperor, busy and preoccupied with other matters, cannot speak with him all day. By all rights he should dismiss him and would have done so already were it not for the affection that he feels for the old man. The Emperor is an only child. His wife, the Empress Shoken, is older than him by three years. The Emperor’s father, The Emperor Komei, died suddenly the year before. It is said that on the day that the Emperor came to power, the first person that he sent for was his mother, who lives in the palace. He does have one grandfather on his mother’s side, a man who prefers politicking over family.  

Well, what will you do now, Matsuura? Return to Hokkaido?

No, Your Majesty. Unfortunately, I am too old for another expedition. I thought instead that I might return to my hometown in Mie-ken. When I left, I was a boy and I have not returned since. It is just a simple place, mostly rice fields and temples. But I should like to see it again. I feel death in my bones.

The Emperor grows thoughtful. Matsuura waits patiently.

I think I understand you, Matsuura. After all of your adventures, you feel the tug of home. You long for a wife, a vegetable garden. I can picture you now: reading a book and falling asleep with your legs under the kotatsu. Outside it is snowing and when you fall asleep, the Ainu people and their dogs revisit you in your dreams. Just like that, you are back in the foothills of the snowy and freezing north…  

Tell me the name of your hometown.

Mikumo, Your Majesty.

Mikumo, the Emperor repeats. Pretty name.

With a tiny pewter handbell made in Amsterdam and engraved with a chrysanthemum, the Emperor’s royal emblem, the Emperor summons a barefooted servant who salaams (dogezasuru) and keeps his forehead to the ground. Bring me my calligraphy set, the Emperor says. The servant rises, a red imprint on his forehead from pressing down so hard on the carpet. On his fleet-footed return with the calligraphy set, the servant sees the Emperor in seiza position on the floor, explaining to Matsuura that the handbell was presented to his great-grandfather by the last Governor of the Dutch East India Company. Both Matsuura and the servant grasp the situation. By lowering himself and sitting next to Matsuura, the Emperor honors his elder and his guest. What the calligraphy will prove is less clear; perhaps that despite his American clothes and his obsession with the West, the Japanese Emperor is still Japanese.

A gift for you, the Emperor says to Matsuura.

The first kanji - mi - is simple enough: three horizontal lines of equal width and height, vertically stacked on top of each other.

The Emperor leans back on his haunches, surveying his work. Now for the second one, he says, dipping his brush in the inkpot. Quite a sight! The bespectacled Emperor in a Civil War uniform, doing calligraphy on his knees.

As for the second kanji - kumo - it is more difficult, and has more than one meaning depending on how it is spelled. One kanji with “kumo” pronunciation means “cloud” while another kanji with “kumo pronunciation means “spider.” Matsuura’s hometown, Mikumo, means “Three Clouds,” but the way the Emperor writes it out, it reads “Three Spiders.” The infallible Emperor has renamed the town, he has made a mistake, and the only person who knows it is Takeshiro Matsuura.


In the fall of 2003, the year after I graduated from college, I took a position as an English teacher at a junior high school in rural Japan. I also taught adults at the local community center, sang a lot of karaoke and generally enjoyed myself. Besides a few Brazilian migrant workers, their wives and kids, and an eccentric Canadian guy named Peter, I was the only foreigner. The name of the town was Mikumo.

Shortly after I left Japan, Mikumo underwent a municipal merger (gappei) with its much larger neighbor to the south, the city of Matsusaka. Officially the town of Mikumo became a suburb or a borough of the city of Matsusaka. In other words, Mikumo was absorbed by Matsusaka. Thus a town that had existed for hundreds of years, was, in the blink of a bureaucratic eye, suddenly and literally wiped off the map. Many people in Mikumo disapproved of the gappei. The party line that nothing would change and their lives would go on as before didn’t sit well with them. It was in Mikumo, not Matsusaka, where the great explorer, Takeshiro Matsuura, was born and raised. As early as 700 A.D., the Saio Princess may have passed through Mikumo and spent the night at an inn on the Ise-Kaido road. Old stone markers at the crossroads of this ancient pilgrimage road were still intact and legible when I came to Mikumo in 2003.  

As it was explained to me, the gappei would cut down on administrative costs. Since leaving Japan, I have often wondered about the other costs of the gappei and how I would feel if my hometown of Tolland, Connecticut, were subsumed by a nearby city and suddenly ceased to exist. I believe that I would be upset, even outraged, but why? Why, when my parents and I don’t live in Tolland anymore (I live in New Haven; my parents live in Boston) and when the town itself—when everything that makes it Tolland, like Papa T’s Restaurant and Crandall’s Pond—would remain unchanged? Then again, why should any government or individual—be it a local, state or federal government—be it a first selectman, a state governor or even a divine Emperor—have naming rights over a place that already exists? What happens to the traditions and ambitions of a place, to its past and its future, when it is renamed?

Did I live in Mikumo? Or, now that it is gone, did I live in Matsusaka? Might I have only dreamed of the place? Sometimes it feels that way…

-Benjamin Johnson

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