Wednesday 28 July 2021

Extraordinary Life: The Japanese Da Vinci - Part 1

Today the Japanese are celebrating something other than the Olympics. Today is the Midsummer Day of the Ox. On this day the Japanese celebrate the season by eating eels. I bet you thought that as it was the Day of the Ox that they’d be eating beef, but you’d be wrong. But there’s a simple explanation as to why eels are eaten, and legend says that that it’s all due to a gay inventor, engineer, writer, artist, ceramicist, pharmacist event organiser, and marketing executive called Hiraga Gennai (1728-1780). It’s no surprise that some historians have labelled him the Japanese Leonardo da Vinci.

Hiraga Gennai’s life was so extraordinary, in some ways ahead of his time, that it needs two separate articles. Perhaps the most extraordinary fact about him is that he wrote books on farting! Today, however, I’ll concentrate on his early life, his rise to fame and his connection to the Midsummer Day of the Ox.

Let’s start, though, with the Day of the Ox itself. The day gets it name from its location in the Chinese calendar, which the Japanese used from the 6th century until 1873. Just like the Chinese New Year, the Midsummer Day of the Ox is not a fixed date and varies from year to year. The day was known to the Japanese for centuries, but how did eels become specifically associated with it?

There’s a traditional Japanese saying that says that if you eat eels on Midsummer Day of the Ox you won’t suffer from the heat, and it gets scorching hot in Japan at this time of year, as I’m sure we can tell by watching the Olympics.

The eels became important during the Edo Period (1603-1868). This is also called the Tokugawa Period because it was founded by the shoguns of the Tokugawa dynasty. This is a family that my most regular readers may remember from older articles. The fifth shogun, Tokugawa Tsunayoshi (1646-1709), was the subject of this article I wrote in 2019. I also mentioned his father here.

During the hot summers of Tokugawa Period Japan eels were not eaten very often. It wasn’t regarded as a summer food. Eel vendors were finding it difficult and unpredictable to sell all their eels, and the price varied according to demand. A couple of generations after the above-mentioned shogun there was one eel vendor who complained about not knowing from one day to the next if he’ll have to throw away most of his unsold produce.

It is fortunate that this vendor turned to Hiraga Gennai for advice. Hiraga came up with an effective marketing strategy. He told the vendor to put up a sign outside his shop saying “Midsummer Day of the Ox”. Of course, everyone knew what day it was, but Hiraga suggested to the vendor that he promote the eating of eels to keep cool during the summer heat. The idea worked, and the vendor sold all his eels. After that, all the other eel vendors followed suit, and it soon turned into an annual tradition.

That’s the legend. There’s no real evidence that it happened like that but it illustrates the influence of Hiraga Gennai in Japanese culture, particularly his reputation as a product marketer. To this day historians aren’t sure why this marketing plan worked. So, how great was Hiraga? Is his reputation as a Japanese Leonardo da Vinci justified? I’ll take a closer look at these questions next week, but for today let’s look at his early life.

Hiraga was born into a samurai family of the Yamashita clan. His father was a manager in the rice warehouse of the Takamatsu daimyo (or feudal lord) and young Hiraga showed an early interest in plants and herbs. He studied medicinal herbs at Osaka and was then employed as a sort of pharmacologist in the herb garden of his daimyo.

In 1749, at the age of 21, Hiraga succeeded his father as warehouse manager. He spent two years studying in Nagasaki, where he came into contact with European merchants, specifically the Dutch. On his return to the rice warehouse he resigned and relinquished his position of head of his household to his brother-in-law.

After travelling and studying around Japan he gained a reputation as an intelligent scholar and was called upon by his daimyo to perform several official duties. Once again, Hiraga resigned. He was no what you could call an independent spirit, a ronin, a samurai not attached to any feudal lordship. As such he was not allowed to serve any official duty. This gave him the freedom to continue studying and travelling. He gained more experience of Dutch culture and this influenced his future career which, in turn, influenced Japanese culture.

It is from this time that Hiraga Gennai turned into one of the most extraordinary men in 18th century Japan. This will be the focus of part 2 of this look at this Japanese da Vinci, which will appear sometime in March 2022.

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