19th-century Aizu school’s stern moral lessons

Tsuyoshi Yoshioka / The Yomiuri Shimbun

The reconstructed Taiseiden Hall of Aizu Hanko Nisshinkan is located in a suburb of Aizuwakamatsu, Fukushima Prefecture, with Mt. Bandai, which is a symbol of the Aizu region, seen behind it.

By Yuka Matsumoto / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WriterIt is said that Japan began its steps toward becoming a modernized country in 1868, when the Meiji government was established after the imperial restoration.

However, for the Aizu feudal clan, which vowed continued loyalty to the Tokugawa shogunate, 1868 was the year when an unjustifiable war occurred. The Aizu domain is part of today’s Fukushima Prefecture.

In the Boshin War, Aizu was stigmatized as “an enemy of the Emperor” or “rebel forces” by the alliance of the Satsuma (now Kagoshima Prefecture) and Choshu (now Yamaguchi Prefecture) clans, which took part in the new government. Aizu finally surrendered after a large number of local samurai warriors and civilians were killed.

Therefore, many people in the Aizu region do not call this year “the 150th anniversary of the Meiji Restoration.” The city government of Aizuwakamatsu marks instead this year as “the 150th anniversary of the Boshin War.”

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  • The Yomiuri Shimbun

  • The Yomiuri Shimbun

    Tsurugajo Castle is seen under a blue sky.

The admonition, “Do not do what you must not do,” is seen here, there and everywhere in the city. The phrase is printed on signboards near train stations, on a corner of a gate of an elementary school, and on souvenirs.

The words are carved or printed in many places as local people have kept it as their important heritage. The phrase is one of the “Ju no Okite” (group precepts) that were learned by children of samurai warriors of Aizu.

Decades earlier, in the wake of the Great Tenmei famine, which was caused by an eruption of Mt. Asama, the Aizu domain had established a school called Hanko Nisshinkan in 1803. The clan believed that fostering its human resources would be the first step toward their recovery.

The school gave both academic and martial arts lessons, and its curriculum included astronomy and medicine. In those years, Nisshinkan was one of the top-class educational institutions in Japan.

Those educated at the school included teenage samurai warriors who belonged to Byakkotai (White Tiger Brigade) and died in a mass suicide in the Boshin War.

The precepts were ethical norms impressed on children aged 6 to 9 before enrolling in Nisshinkan, which included such phrases as “Do not lie,” “Do not take unfair actions,” and “Do not bully the weak.” The series of the phrases is finalized strictly with the phrase, “Do not do what you must not do.”

“The precepts can be called the origin of fostering human resources,” said Tadashi Munakata, 85, the head of Aizu Hanko Nisshinkan, which was rebuilt as a history museum.

“There are things humans are never allowed to do. Aizu people follow the rules,” he added.

Tsurugajo Castle in the city was rebuilt in 1965. The original one suffered heavy shelling during a monthlong siege in the Boshin War.

Six years after the defeat, the original castle was dismantled. The original building of Nisshinkan, which was located on the west side of the castle, was also burned down.

Entrepreneurs in the city proposed re-creating the educational institution of the Aizu clan, and more than 200 companies offered to cooperate. In 1987, a reproduction of the clan school was built on a hill with a clear view of Mt. Bandai.

The institute was precisely reproduced based on historical documents, at a total cost of ¥3.4 billion. Taiseiden, a hall that enshrines Confucius, stands as the central part of the wooden complex.

Suiren Suiba Ike, which is believed to be Japan’s oldest swimming pool, an artillery training ground and an astronomical observatory of the school were also reproduced.

The current Nisshinkan functions as a museum and an educational institution.

In the archery hall, competitions and training camps are held. Visitors can feel how bushido (the spirit of the samurai) is practiced.

An official of Nisshinkan said, “Recently, seated Zen meditation is popular.” Annually, students from about 400 schools from all over the nation visit Nisshinkan as part of their school trips.

The educational spirit of Aizu can be found in the work of schools.

In autumn last year, Munakata was invited to Hagi, Yamaguchi Prefecture, which was the castle town of the Choshu domain. In a lecture event held there, he loudly said, “It’s impossible for us to heal relationships.”

But Munakata also said: “We can’t delete a historical fact. However, we cannot step forward if we continue to hold a grudge forever.”

Before the Meiji Restoration, the Choshu clan also had been enthusiastic about educating people at its own school.

“As a role for Japan, I hope both of us [descendants of Aizu and Choshu] can demonstrate the spirit toward the rest of the world,” Munakata said.

The Meiji government raised a slogan of “Rich nation, stong military,” and put forth a policy of centralization of power. Today, Japan has become prosperous.

On the other hand, now in Japan, scandals of major companies have been occurring incessantly, and there are endless cases of bullying.

Don’t we cheat others? Don’t we pursue happiness only for ourselves?

The just precepts of the Aizu clan — defeated though they were — continue to confront us with such sobering questions.

■ Access

Takes 1 hour and 20 minutes on the Tohoku Shinkansen line from Tokyo Station to Koriyama Station. Transfer to JR Banetsu Saisen line for an 1 hour and 15 minute ride to Aizuwakamatsu Station.

Telephone inquiries to Aizu Hanko Nisshinkan: (0242) 75-2525. Nisshinkan has an accommodation facility for groups of visitors.

Telephone inquiries in general: Call Aizuwakamatsu Tourism Bureau at (0242) 23-8000.

To find out more about Japan’s attractions, visit


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