Hikone Byobu National Treasure folding screen

The Hikone Castle Museum exhibits the Hikone Byobu folding screen (彦根屏風), a National Treasure, on a regular basis every year. When I saw it in spring 2013, it was being exhibited until May 7, 2013. Shiga Prefecture has only four paintings that are National Treasures, and this is one of them and the only non-religious one. The others are all religious paintings owned by temples like Miidera. (Japan has 158 paintings designated as National Treasures as of this writing.) The byobu shows a pleasure quarters scene in Kyoto. It’s painted on a gold-leaf paper background.

The six-panel byobu is dated to be from the Edo Period’s Kan’ei era (1624-44). It measures 271 cm wide and 94 cm high. Since it was kept by the Ii clan (lord of Hikone Castle) for generations, the screen is nicknamed “Hikone Byobu” even though the painting is not related to Hikone. The byobu’s official name is a mouthful: Shihon Kinjichaku-shoku Fuzoku-zu (紙本金地著色風俗図). The city of Hikone now owns the byobu (since 1997). The Hikone Byobu underwent meticulous repairs for two years and it is exhibited for a few weeks every spring during this time.

The byobu’s National Treasure acclaim is due to the highly skilled and meticulous painting style and the myriad of people, fashion, and objects depicted from that era. Extremely fine lines and dots are painted for the hair, kimono patterns, etc. You’ll need a magnifying glass to see all that intricate detail (although you won’t be able to get that close to the painting). The painted scene is an outstanding snapshot of the people and customs of that time. Thus, it is called a fuzoku-zu (風俗図). With so many little details pictured, you would have to be well-versed in the arts, fashion, customs, and history of that period to fully appreciate what is depicted.

On the left of the byobu, you can see a folding screen with a Chinese-style painting. This is the only prop we see in the background and it indicates that the scene on the left half of the screen is indoors where everyone is sitting close together. The right half of the screen looks like it’s outdoors since the people are standing and one woman is walking her little dog (imported from Europe) even. We see no boundary between the indoors and outdoors, but it is obviously implied.

On the screen’s left half showing the indoor scene, three people are playing the samisen and three people are playing Japanese backgammon called sugoroku (双六). There is also a long tobacco pipe below the backgammon player dressed in black. Tobacco pipes were imported from Spain and Portugal at the time and were very popular in Japan. Their length eventually got shorter in later years.

On the lower right in the indoor scene is a girl writing a love letter with ink and brush. The samisen players, sugoroku players, letter writer, and background folding screen all refer to the Chinese-originated cultural concept of kinkishoga (琴棋書画), meaning stringed instrument (koto), traditional board game, calligraphy, and painting. Being skilled at these four traditional arts was considered a prerequisite of a cultured person. It was common for paintings to depict kinkishoga.

Above the letter writer is a middle-age woman leaning on an arm rest. She is thought to be a Buddhist layman of great knowledge, making her the de facto supervisor there.

The pleasure quarters was for people of taste and culture. It was a leading edge for fashion and we can see various fashion statements in the painting. The people wear a variety of hairstyles. For example, the karawa-mage style (唐輪髷) with the hair stacked up was favored by the courtesans of that day. We also see short-sleeve casual kimono called kosode (小袖) and they also have gold leaf embedded in the material.

On the right side of the byobu, the woman second from the right edge is wearing a kimono with a basho (banana plant) design. It reminds one of a Noh song titled, Basho. (Famous haiku poet Basho named himself after the banana plant.)

When the Hikone Byobu was made in the early Edo Period, it wasn’t for the masses to see. Only the cultural elite would be able to see it and the artist knew this. The artist therefore included little details that only the cultural elite would appreciate and understand. They would have been well-versed in Chinese-style painting, religious paintings, Noh plays, etc.

The painting was designed to be viewed not as a flat painting, but on a folding screen with its characteristic zig-zag panels facing inward or outward. The people were painted to match the respective panel’s angle. If you look closely, you can see that the way the people are facing are indeed enhanced or emphasized by the angle of the panel. Since the painting was not signed, the artist is unknown. However, experts say that the painter likely belonged to the Kano school of Japanese painting. It’s astonishing that the artist did not sign such a masterpiece. I wonder if the artist didn’t sign it because the work was still unfinished (the background looks too empty to me) or maybe there were multiple artists. There are still things about the painting that experts do not know about.

I went to see this byobu a year ago during Golden Week. I went without reading up about it, so I was unable to fully appreciate the byobu’s artistic and cultural value when I saw it. It was only after I did some reading when I was able to appreciate this rare National Treasure. I’m happy to now share with you what I’ve learned about this fascinating byobu. You should appreciate it for what it’s really worth. A little knowledge (and language) goes a long way.

The Hikone Castle Museum is next to the ticket booth to enter Hikone Castle, a short walk from JR Hikone Station. Open 8:30 am to 5 pm (enter by 4:30 pm). Admission is 500 yen for adults (cheaper if you also buy a ticket to enter Hikone Castle).

Related posts at shiga-ken.com:

Hikone Castle photos – Over 280 photos of Hikone castle.


About Hikone – Overview of the city of Hikone.

Goggle map of Hikone – Main sights listed.


Hikone Castle video – Comprehensive 34-min. video about the castle, its history, Genkyuen Garden, and autumn castle festivals.

Water Lilies song by Yoshida Chiaki

Video link: http://youtu.be/bfGs7GSdrXE

My friend in Niigata recently posted this video of a choir singing Hitsuji-gusa or Water Lilies. What’s significant about this obscure song from 1915 is that its melody was used in the much more famous song, Biwako Shuko no Uta (Lake Biwa Rowing Song), Shiga’s most famous and beloved song (read about it here).

The university rowing club boys in Kyoto who wrote Biwako Shuko no Uta in 1917 found that Hitsuji-gusa’s melody matched their lyrics well, and the rest is history.

When you watch this video, you will notice that the melody sounds very similar to Biwako Shuko no Uta. (Or should I say that Biwako Shuko no Uta sounds very similar to Hitsuji-gusa.) Hitsuji-gusa was composed by a very talented young man named Yoshida Chiaki (吉田 千秋 1895-1919) from Niigata Prefecture. The lyrics are his Japanese translation of an old British children’s song called Water Lilies. He then composed a melody to match his Japanese lyrics. The song is about holding firm in times of adversity, just like the water lilies can even in a rainstorm. Chiaki composed the song while he was battling tuberculosis. He later died of the disease at age 24 in 1919.

For many years, no one knew who composed the melody for Biwako Shuko no Uta. When Kato Tokiko scored a national hit with Biwako Shuko no Uta in 1971, people started to wonder who composed the melody. It was known that the lyrics were written in 1917 by Oguchi Taro and his fellow university rowing club buddies in Kyoto. Many people assumed that Oguchi also composed the melody. Every 5 or 10 years or so after 1971, researchers found out a little more about the composer of the music. First they found out which song the melody came from. A few years later around 1980, they found the name of the composer, but didn’t know who he was.

Finally in 1993, after over 20 years of digging, the composer’s identity was brought to light. Chiaki turned out to be the second son of a famous geographer (Yoshida Togo). Chiaki was also found to be a brilliant young man who took interest in many things like astronomy, zoology, botany, and foreign languages. He had a good command of English and several other languages. If he hadn’t died so young, he likely would have become one of Japan’s leading scientists or professors. (Read my article about Chiaki here.)

The video above was taken at a memorial gathering on the anniversary of Chiaki’s death in Feb. 2013 at Chiaki’s birth home in Niigata city. A choir called Koai Gassho no Kai (小合合唱の会) sang a few songs including Hitsuji-gusa and Biwako Shuko no Uta. Chiaki’s home is now occupied by his niece, the daughter of Chiaki’s younger brother. I visited the house in 2007 and the niece showed me the room where Chiaki spent his final days. (Photos here.)

In 2001, an organization named Chiaki no Kai (「ちあき」の会) was formed to perpetuate, preserve, and honor Yoshida Chiaki’s numerous works and legacy.

Here are the lyrics of the original British children’s song followed by Chiaki’s song. There are three verses.

Water Lilies, by E.R.B. (Education & Resettlement Bureau)

Misty moonlight, faintly falling
O’er the lake at eventide,
Shows a thousand gleaming lilies
On the rippling waters wide.

White as snow, the circling petals
Cluster round each golden star,
Rising, falling with the waters,
Moving, yet at rest they are.

Winds may blow, and skies may darken,
Rain may pour, and waves may swell;
Deep beneath the changeful eddies
Lily roots fastened well.

Hitsuji-gusa (ひつじぐさ), by Yoshida Chiaki

おぼろ月夜の 月明かり
かすかに池の 面に落ち
波間に浮かぶ 数知らぬ
ひつじ草をぞ 照らすなる
1 (Romanized)
Oboro tsukiyo no, tsuki akari
Kasuka ni ike no, omo ni ochi
Nami ma ni ukabu, kazu shiranu
Hitsuji-gusa o zo, terasu naru
雪かとまがふ 花びらは
黄金の蘂を 取り巻きつ
波のまにまに 揺るげども
花の心は 波立たず
2 (Romanized)
Yuki ka tomagafu, hanabira wa
Kogane no shibe o, tori makitsu
Nami no ma ni ma ni, yuruge domo
Hana no kokoro wa, nami datazu
風吹かば吹け 空曇れ
雨降れ波立たて さりながら
徒波の下 底深く
萌えいでたりぬ ひつじ草
3 (Romanized)
Kaze fukaba fuke, sora kumore
Ame fure nami tate, sari nagara
Adanami no shita, soko fukaku
Moe idetarinu, hitsuji-gusa

The video below is the same choir singing Biwako Shuko no Uta (Lake Biwa Rowing Song). Listen and compare.

Governor Kada rejects Kyoto merging with Shiga

Image from Wikipedia.

One proposal for Doshusei prefectural mergers (9 states). Image from Wikipedia.

NHK TV news in Otsu reported an interesting bit of news on Feb. 26, 2013 about the governor of Kyoto stating that he was in favor of merging Kyoto and Shiga Prefectures. And that Shiga Governor Yukiko Kada rejected such a merger saying that she did not see how Shiga could benefit.

This is what Kyoto Governor Keiji Yamada stated in front of the Kyoto Prefectural Assembly on On Feb. 25, 2013:

“Kyoto and Shiga Prefectures share a lot within our living and working spheres, so merging is a practical option. If this happens, we could also think about moving Kyoto’s prefectural capital to Otsu.”

In Japanese: 「滋賀県とは生活区域や働く場所など共通点が非常に多いので合併というのも1つの現実的な対応ではないか。そうした場合、政治論からすれば、大津に府庁を持って行くことも考えられる」

Reacting to this, Governor Kada told reporters:

“Shiga has a history of 1,300 years. Since we are bound/unified by a natural lake, we are called ‘Lake country’ and ‘Omi Province.’ We’re older than Kyoto (grin)…Shiga is also governed by a tightly-knit government and people in Shiga love their hometown and retain a strong identity. I don’t really see any benefits right now in erasing Shiga or merging with Kyoto.”

In Japanese: 「滋賀県は湖でつながり、一体的に行政運営もなされ、県民の皆さんも地元を愛しているので、京都と一緒になるメリットは今のところ見えない」

This talk is in reference to the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and other parties’ push for the Doshusei (道州制) system of consolidating Japan’s prefectures (except Hokkaido and Okinawa) into larger regional states. The Kyoto governor’s statement was made amid this national discussion so it’s not totally out of the blue.

If you live in Japan, you should learn and remember the word Doshusei. It literally means, “Hokkaido+states system.” It’s been kicked around for quite some time, but it has become more prominent in the past 10 years and you can be sure to hear it more often from now on, especially with the Liberal Democratic Party in power.

The Doshusei system is a major reform and realignment of Japan’s governmental jurisdictions. The word “prefecture” would disappear, replaced by “state.” It would be similar to when prefectures consolidated and replaced the old samurai domains called han (藩) in 1871. That was called haihan-chiken (廃藩置県). There are Doshusei proposals to consolidate Japan’s 47 prefectures into 9, 11, or 13 states. Hokkaido and Okinawa would remain as separate states, while the remaining 45 prefectures would be merged into regional states.

The image at the top gives you an idea of what the new united states of Japan might look like in the case of having nine states. Shiga Prefecture (white dot) would basically merge with Kyoto, Osaka, Hyogo, Nara, and Wakayama Prefectures (all in light green in the middle). (There is also a proposal to include Fukui Prefecture.) It combines the Kansai and Kinki regions.

The goals and benefits of the Doshusei system supposed to be the decentralization of the national government in favor of more local autonomy. Another benefit supposed to be improved fiscal and administrative efficiency which I hope means a smaller and less costly government. I guess the six governors of six merging prefectures would be replaced by only one governor right?

Kyoto Governor Yamada’s statement favoring a merger with Shiga is premature since ultimately it’s not a matter of only Kyoto and Shiga merging, but the merger of at least six prefectures. Wouldn’t it be more efficient and less costly to merge all at once instead of only Kyoto and Shiga at first, then add Osaka, etc., later? I can only dismiss Governor Yamada’s statement as just “feelers” for a reaction from Shiga which has been “no” so far (at least from Gov. Kada). I’m sure Kyoto would love to claim Shiga as its own. Lake Biwa is their (and Osaka’s) water supply and would be the most prized possession. For us in Shiga, we could say that we live in Kyoto instead of always saying, “Next to Kyoto.”

One big sticking point for the Doshusei system would be what to name the new state and how the old prefectures would be able to retain their local names, identity, and flavor. Prefectures like Kyoto and Osaka with capital cities having the same name will be able to retain their names on the map. But not Shiga, unless they figure something out. What would people call the area once known as Shiga Prefecture? Omi? Biwako area? Eastern Kinki (if the new state will be called Kinki)?

Any prefectural merger would render the name “Shiga” obsolete unless they name the new state “Shiga” (fat chance). There are many things named “Shiga,” universities, public facilities, etc. And of course, Web sites like mine. Hence, my interest in this news.

Also, sister-state relations between Shiga and Michigan will likely encompass the entire super state. Michigan will be a sister state with Kyoto, Osaka, etc., as well. Imagine that.

But a prefectural merger and/or the implementation of the Doshusei system is inevitable. The question is when and how. Will it be a super merger of all prefectures at one time or piece meal? Will it occur all over Japan at the same time or at different times? Governor Kada has set up a research group (道州制研究チーム) to study the pros and cons of the Doshusei system. It’s basically a money matter though. If there are enough financial incentives, the prefectures will merge as the cities, towns, and villages have done in recent years.

The problem with Facebook

Facebook is the most popular Internet service I’ve ever seen. In the United States, a staggering 7 out of 10 Internet users are on Facebook. Despite the enormous popularity, I have declined to create a Facebook page for shiga-ken.com even though I’m an active FB user.

Here are my reasons:

  • Not everyone is on Facebook. In fact, many of my friends are still not on Facebook or they are just too busy for FB. People not on FB cannot see any content there. Also, you have to be at least 13 years old to register on FB. I know there are kids younger than age 13 reading my blog to study English. But everyone can see my Shiga News blog.
  • Facebook is geared for short, fleeting posts and content. Whereas my content are usually longer than a paragraph, more in-depth, and can be useful as practical information/reference for a much longer time.
  • We cannot organize or categorize Facebook posts according to theme or key words. Facebook posts can be archived only by timeline (month and year). Look at my Shiga News blog. All my posts can be archived in categories (city, town, festivals, etc.) as well as by year/month. This is not possible with Facebook.
  • Facebook posts do not have individual URLs. If there is an FB post I like, I cannot send the URL to anyone nor bookmark it for later reference.
  • We cannot conduct key word searches of FB posts. FB posts also do not show up in Google search results as blog posts do. All that content you create on FB gets lost in the shuffle as time passes.
  • The quality of the content on FB is inherently low. Lots of noise and superficial posts. It’s simply not a source of quality information. FB can never replace a high-quality Web site or blog. It’s just not conductive to accumulate and host quality content. Why post quality content when it will disappear into obscurity within days?
  • Expending a lot of time and effort to create content that someone else will profit from does not bode well with me. There should be revenue-sharing like Google Ads.
  • Who knows how long Facebook will last? Similar services like Myspace and the once enormously-popular mixi in Japan reached a peak and then went downhill. Sooner or later, people will get tired of all that noise and frivolous chatter and useless automated messages of “so-and-so is now friends with so-and-so” on FB. The novelty will wear off or something better might come along. Although I use FB, I’m not investing heavily into it. I avoid making lots of FB friends, divulging a lot of personal information including likes, and creating a lot of quality content.
  • The content I create on Facebook cannot be downloaded and saved as a backup file. I can always save my Web site and blog content as a backup database file and copy it to another site or host. Not possible with FB which is like a black hole that sucks everything in and gives nothing back except comments, likes, and ads. Someday when you quit FB or if FB implodes like Myspace, all that content you created will not be recoverable in any efficient way. Therefore, I reserve FB for only disposable content that can be written off in the end.

The main attraction of Facebook is the quick feedback and interactivity you can get from posts. Eliciting comments and likes from friends can be addictive. It’s also extremely easy to post on FB. Much easier than posting on a blog. But in the long run, a blog is better than FB because I can have complete control, ownership, and archival capability of my content. Content that anyone on the Internet can see or subscribe to. I’m not at the mercy of Facebook which can change its terms and conditions or system at any time. Facebook is a great way to keep in touch with my best friends, especially in times of emergency. That’s about it.

Update: Article about FB users in Japan losng interest:

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