Samurai Etiquette of the Shimadzu Clan

Ancient samurai etiquette passed down over 800 years

Each year at Sengan-en seasonal decorations and brightly coloured winter peonies are displayed to welcome in the New Year.

This time of year is also known for preserved food such as mochi rice cakes, and households all over Japan will grill, bake, fry, and steam the ubiquitous staple food as a tasty snack. We also hold a mochi making and shochu tasting event here at Sengan-en to bring a bit of New Year cheer to the kimono clad visitors to the gardens.

There is another much less well-known side to New Year decorations here at Sengan-en, however, one that was only known by the Kamakura period warriors of ancient Japan. The Shimadzu family have preserved this 800-year old tradition, and it can still be seen in the house at Sengan-en each year. The decorations are called Kamakura-ryu Shogatsu Kazari and feature some unusual touches that have been forgotten by most of Japan over the centuries.

In ancient Japan rites performed at each stage of life were regarded with great importance. Along with chakko-no-gi, genpuku, and other such coming of age ceremonies, the New Year and other seasonal events were taken very seriously, and each had its own specific rituals to follow. There were several schools of etiquette concerned with every aspect of these rituals and even simple daily tasks like preparing food with a knife.

Since the Kamakura period (1185 – 1333), the Shimadzu family have had their own particular set of rituals which were not even shared with other members of the warrior or noble classes.

Most of the feudal lords around Japan followed the Ogusa-ryu, a school of etiquette primarily concerned with the proper way to cut and serve various types of food. Carp and crane were among some of the ingredients prepared in the highly meticulous ceremony, where the practitioner is not allowed to touch the food they are cutting for fear of despoiling it. Instead long chopsticks and a special knife are used to carefully slice the ceremonial food in a highly specific way.

The Shimadzu family stuck with their Kamakura-ryu traditions, which were passed down over generations from the first head of the Shimadzu family, Tadahisa (1179-1227), to his descendants. This caused some problems for later generations, particularly around the time of Shimadzu Yoshihisa (1533-1611) and his brother Yoshihiro (1535-1619), as they had many opportunities to mix with the nobility in Kyoto and other prominent feudal lords. The Shimadzu style of etiquette and hospitality was totally alien to this rarified crowd, who were highly displeased at the unusual way in which the southern lords went about hosting their guests.

The Shimadzu family eventually hired a teacher from the Ogusa-ryu to bring their own etiquette in line with the other feudal lords. This teacher, called Ishihara Sado is said to be the origin of the Kagoshima phrase “Ishihara-don no nage-shio”, referring to just the right amount of seasoning added to a dish.

The Shimadzu family went on to successfully entertain lords and nobles from all over Japan without any issues, but at home they continued to use their own particular Kamakura-ryu style etiquette.

One part of the Kamakura-ryu was concerned with how New Years decorations should be arranged. In most Japanese households’ large round rice cakes topped with the bitter citrus fruit daidai are used as a decoration to celebrate the New Year, but the Shimadzu family decorations are completely different.

A small tray called a sanbo is filled with uncooked rice then topped with 32 small mochi and 7 small pine branches. The red and white paper that the whole display rests on is also folded in a specific way 32 times, with the corners of the paper sagging downwards.

This glimpse into the minutiae of samurai culture from 800 years ago is something that can only be seen here at Sengan-en, thanks to the Shimadzu family sticking to their regional traditions over hundreds of years.

This display of Kamakura-ryu Shogatsu Kazari is prepared each year in the reception room at the house here at Sengan-en along with three decorative scrolls covered in lucky seasonal motifs.

The world may have changed since the time of the Kamakura period samurai, but it is good to know that even a small remnant of the culture they created is still being practiced today at the home of the Shimadzu family here in Kagoshima.

Whatever traditions you hold dear for the New Year, we wish you a happy and prosperous 2020, and hope that you can join us at Sengan-en soon. Happy New Year!

Alex Bradshaw

Alex is the Head of Overseas Business for Shimadzu Limited, and has lived in Kagoshima for over 15 years.

He has spent many years studying traditional swordsmanship, and has demonstrated martial arts for the Crown Prince of Japan as well as at many venerable shrines across Japan. He also practices calligraphy, zazen, and many other elements of Japanese culture and has translated several works on the subject.

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