Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The Ichishima Family and its history

You may associate my family name, Ichishima, with Ichishima-Tei (the mansion and garden of Japan’s second wealthiest landowner, preserved as part of the cultural heritage of Niigata Prefecture), or, perhaps, Ichishima Shuzo (a very notable Sake brewery in nearby Shibata City). Or if you have a good knowledge of Japanese literature, history and politics, you may be reminded of, amongst others, Aizu Yaichi (an essayist and art historian), Ichishima Shunjo (one of the founders of Waseda University) or Ichishima Tokujiro (the first president of Daishi Bank), or Ichishima Michio (a poet). They are all from branches of the Ichishima family tree. I belong to the Rokunojoke Branch.

Recently, I pieced together a brief history of the Ichishima families based on old newspaper articles and books, including KabyoNoSheHi, and Kaken (the family’s constitutional law book), which were published exclusively for members of the ten family branches and a few other people.

The most famous of the Ichishimas was “Gono,” a giant landowner. The Soke family (the “head family” or the “main-branch family”) was the largest land and forest owner in Niigata Prefecture before the start of the Second World War. Two thousand six hundred peasants worked in the rice paddies for the great landlord. Their land holdings were second only to the Homma family of Yamagata Prefecture.

The Ichishima residence, built in 1876 in Toyoura, Shibata City, is now preserved as a museum, and is open to the public. Unfortunately, a strong earthquake destroyed “Kogetsukaku,” a pomp-filled guest palace, in 1995 and, presently, there is no plan to rebuild it unless private benefactors can be found to provide financial support as government coffers are limited.

The Ichishima Family originated more than four centuries ago in Ichijima Town in Hyogo Prefecture as a family without a surname. However, when the Feudal Lord Mizoguchi was ordered by Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the daimyo who unified the political factions of Japan in the Sengoku period, to transfer from Kaga (Ishikawa Prefecture) to Shibata Castle, the first “Jihei” in the family followed him and settled in Ijimino, Shibata in 1598. One of his great-grandsons, even though he was the eldest son in the family, moved away from the family home to a neighboring town, “Suibara,” and rose to power, establishing the Soke family.

Other family members settled in parts of Shibata City. One, “Rokunojo,” who was favored by his father, inherited the original place in Ijimino, and established the family’s Rokunojo branch. All family branches have had ups and downs during their histories, but the Soke family had been one of Japan’s largest landowners from the early Edo Period until a decade after World War II.

Though the different branches of the family often went separate ways, the 185-article family constitution that bound them together strongly emphasized the importance of family ties and cooperation. One of its tenets was that “No family abandons another in trouble.” Thus, when the Rokunojo family faced less prosperous times and had even teetered on the verge of bankruptcy, its members were granted a share of the Soke family’s holdings, including a mansion in the same town as Ichishima Tei.

However, the emancipation of farming land and disposition of financial cliques in the aftermath of the war took away almost all properties from the farming giants. At this time, the Soke branch of the family, having no remaining heirs, became extinguished, much to the sorrow of other branches.

My grandfather was not the eldest son, so our branch of the family is not in the direct line of the Rokunojos. His residence was built in Ijimino, where an earlier ancestor settled, and, though we have spread to different cities during this modern age of hustle and bustle, it is still my family’s official domicile address.