Did Temple take the Rap for the Great Meireki Fire?
Former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama’s mother dribbled ¥1.2 billion in her son’s direction, but she didn’t tell him. Eighty-seven-year-old Yasuko Hatoyama gave the court a written statement to the effect, so it must be true. Subsequently, hapless prime-ministerial aide Keiji Katsuba fell on his sword after admitting that he had falsely reported the sources of his boss’s political donations, including part of Yasuko’s “gifts.” Some of these sources had been long dead. In wrist-slapping retribution that reverberated through Nagatacho, Katsuba received a three-year prison sentence which, in time-honored fashion, was suspended.
Cover-ups – not that the above is a cover-up – are not unique to Japan, but the system seems to tolerate, even encourage, them thanks to weak investigative journalism, a tame prosecution service, collusive political and corporate skullduggery, and a shortage of parody and satire in the media. For the exposed miscreant, an excruciating display of public remorse is usually enough, and the issue fades from public scrutiny.
On the 18th day of the first month of the Meireki period (March 2, 1657, I calculate), the Great Meireki Fire raged across Edo for two days.
No ordinary “flower of Edo,” the Meireki Taika destroyed three-quarters of the city and killed 100,000 people, perhaps a quarter of the population. The scale of destruction and death from fire went unparalleled until the firebombing of Tokyo in March 1945. To put it into some perspective, the Great Fire of London only nine years later burned for five days but claimed only 16 lives. Edo was tinderbox-dry after 18 days without rain, and the wind blew fiercely. The first fire lasted 12 hours, consuming the merchant quarters and crossing the Sumida River into Fukagawa. Then a second blaze erupted in Koishikawa, reaching Marunouchi and breaching the Edo Castle moat. A third blaze destroyed Kojimachi and its momoyama mansions on its way to Hibiya, Shiba and Shibaura. Apart from the unspeakable human loss, the tragedy claimed 1,000 samurai estates, 350 temples and shrines and more than 45,000 ordinary dwellings.
Japanese history books and museums, and foreign sources, all say the fire started at Honmyoji Temple during the ceremonial burning of a maiden’s cursed kimono, when an errant spark set alight the roof of the worship hall. The temple confessed, and thereafter the conflagration became the stuff of folklore and became known as the “Long Sleeves Fire,” achieving legendary, tragic appeal over the centuries. A board at the site of the old temple, near present-day Hongo San-chome subway station, parrots the common belief. I think it’s untrue, and I am not completely alone; it reeks of a monumental cover-up, with all the complicated intrigue of a kabuki play.
I am no expert on the workings of the Tokugawa bakufu’s paranoid mind, but from the systematic slaughter at the Suzugamori and Kozukappara execution grounds, I suspect they were a vengeful, unforgiving lot. The punishment fitted the crime – literally. In 1683, love-sick O-Shichi set fire to her own house in the hope she could find refuge in her lover priest’s temple. She was caught and burned at the stake.
So what punishment could the self-confessed instigators of Edo’s most destructive and lethal fire expect? Dissolution, at least, with exile or execution for the priests. Inexplicably, there is no record of any punishment. Indeed, Shogun Ietsuna was so benevolent he allowed the temple to be rebuilt on the same site, even though because of it almost nothing remained of his castle or city.
Some delving unearthed material from NHK which cast serious doubt on the widely accepted origin of the Meireki fire. Edo maps, well into the 19th century, show clearly a large plot of land adjoining the Honmyoji temple belonging to a family called Abe, trusted retainers of the Tokugawas. I am among those who believe the fire actually started on this samurai estate.
Whatever happened on that fateful day, Honmyoji Temple took the rap. Was Ietsuna petrified by the thought of wiping out the Abe clan in retribution, and perhaps bringing on an early version of the revenge of the 47 ronin? Did he broker a deal with Honmyoji whereby the temple took the blame under promise of immunity from punishment? I think so, for not only did Honmyoji temple rise again on its original site, records show it also received annual gifts of rice and money from the Abe family for the next 260 years. They had no religious affiliation to their Buddhist neighbor, so why the generosity over such a period?
Honmyoji finally moved, to Sugamo, a few miles north of the original and still there, among the graves, incense smolders around a simple, permanent memorial to the victims of a disaster it may have had no part in causing. ❶
Guy Stanley met his wife, Kayoko, in Spain and traveled to Japan by train in 1966, studying at Sophia University while teaching English and Spanish. He has published six novels set in Japan, and divides the year between Tokyo and London.