Chapter 3, section 4, 'Legend of the Takahashi Fortune'
As told to Kaworu (Carl) Nomura by Shiro Takahashi, the son of Katsumi Takahashi (Mizuko’s older brother) and Mizuko’s nephew. With clarifications by the author.
In 1601 Mizuko’s Takahashi ancestors moved from their home in the ancient Japanese capital of Kyoto to the Hiroshima area. Hiroshima was a collection of villages back then and not the thriving city we know today.
Those ancestors were probably ambitious merchants looking for an opportunity to garner fame and fortune in a new territory beyond the restricted possibilities of long-established Kyoto.
Japan is an island composed mainly of hills and mountains with flat, arable land at a premium. The Takahashi progenitors passed through Hiroshima City to Onorimura, Toyota-gun, about 40 miles east-south-east of the Hiroshima city center.
In the early 1800s, the Hiroshima area was being expanded seaward by extensive land reclamation projects. The Takahashi clan moved rocks and soil from the hills bordering the village of Onori to reclaim land from the sea along its southern border. Over the course of several generations, acre after acre was added to the Takahashi holdings.
Wealth accumulated from agricultural, and commercial rental of the reclaimed land. By the early-18th century, the Takahashi clan became the leading family in Onorimura. The family scion constructed a great mansion near the ocean befitting his wealth.
According to the legend, Kichinosuke Takahashi, Mizuko’s father, was the third of three sons. He was a pleasant boy with an inquisitive mind, but knew from his early childhood that his future economic status would have to depend on his own efforts. In those days, it was a certainty that the family fortune would pass on to the oldest son of the family.
Tona Hase, Kichinosuke’s future bride, (possibly surname, Hasegawa) was brought up in nearby Yoshina-mura, also in Toyota-gun. The wealth of her family was based on its ownership of a coal mine. Kichinosuke and Tona met through mutual friends and fell in love. Gorosaburo Hase, Tona’s father, did not believe that ‘love match’ marriages were ideal and was very much against the couple’s union. Despite his opposition, Kichinosuke persisted in his desire to marry his daughter. Gorosaburo created a condition to the marriage that was designed to discourage Tona's avid pursuer. Kichinosuke was required to sign an agreement that stipulated that should the Hase coal mine experience financial difficulty that the lovestruck suitor would be personally responsible for assuming the debt. Kichinosuke, with nothing to lose as the third son in his family, readily agreed to the condition, signed the document, and married Tona.
As fate would have it, by the time Kichinosuke’s father died, a series of circumstances found Kichinosuke inheriting the Takahashi fortune instead of his elder brother. His eldest brother died as a teenager, and his second brother, who was a noted scholar, turned the inheritance down to pursue his academic pursuits. This resulted in Kichinosuke suddenly becoming doubly rich, since his own inheritance nearly matched that of his wife.
Subsequently, Kichinosuke and his wife Tona had five children that were initially raised in the lap of luxury. The Takahashi manor was the biggest and most beautiful house in the area. The shopkeepers, farmers, and peasants of Onorimura fell to their knees and bowed when any of the Takahashi family passed by.
The Takahashi estate boasted a full array of hired help, from cooks, to servants, nannies, field hands, foremen, and grounds keepers. A staff of bookkeepers kept track of the income generated by tenant farmers, a percentage of which went into Takahashi coffers, as well as the income from the family’s own personal farmland.
At the turn of the century, a huge calamity struck the Hase family mines that Tona had inherited. An earthquake, followed by a deadly fire killed and injured scores of workers. The mine closed immediately, never to be reopened. As was customary, the Hase family became responsible for supporting the surviving families and for the care of the injured miners. In short order the agreement that young Kichinosuke had blithely signed twenty-one years prior came into effect. He became financially responsible for Tona Hase's mountain of debt.
In order to cover the debt, Kichinosuke ordered the Takahashi lands to be sold. In addition, he was forced to sell the family manor and the family heirlooms. As a result, after over three hundred years of prosperity, the Takahashi family was stripped of its wealth and relegated to residing in a modest guesthouse on their former estate. The tragedy compounded itself exponentially when Tona, guilt-ridden and shamed, died at the age of thirty-seven as her husband lost his family's fortune.
Problems with the Legend
1. Reviewing the family tree, it appears that Kichinosuke did not have any older brothers. In fact he was the oldest son. A noted scholar, Zinzan Takahashi, was part of the family, but he is the brother of Kichinosuke’s father, Naotaro. Zinzan is therefore Kichinosuke’s uncle, not his brother.
2. There are no known coal mines in Hiroshima-ken. The coal mines in Japan are located in the far north, most on the island of Hokkaido.
3. Can a person die from guilt?
4. Earthquakes in Japan are common, but there were no major earthquakes in the period 1901-1902.
Possible explanations of factual discrepancies
1. Like all legends, the story is king. When I read the story of the Takahashi fortune in my uncle Kaworu Carl Nomura’s Sleeping on Potatoes autobiography I was deeply captivated. I can fully understand how Shiro Takahashi (Mizuko's nephew) or whoever else was responsible for passing the story on might have taken some artistic license when he recounted the tale.
2. There could have been ownership of a mine outside of Hiroshima. However, like many pre-WWII historical possibilities many documents have been lost to the War. Therefore the mine’s existence is impossible to corroborate.
3. In Japan, the desire to ‘save face’ and avoid hajii, shame, is all-encompassing. Social norms and conventions ruled society in 1900 in a way that is all but unimaginable in the ‘whatever’ world of 21st century America. I think that Tona Hase could very well have died of health complications brought about from feelings of guilt and shame.
4. A minor earthquake, not worthy of historical note, could have damaged the mine, wherever it may have been, and killed and injured its workers.
end of Chapter 3, section 4