Sendai Shirō: The Silent Man Who Made Everyone Smile

Sendai Shirō: The Silent Man Who Made Everyone Smile

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Sendai Shiro
Picture: chocolat / PIXTA(ピクスタ)
How a man in Japan's city of Sendai became regarded as a "god of good fortune" whose image still persists today.

It was an image seemingly everywhere, once I’d gotten my bearings in Sendai. The man was dressed in kimono and sat with arms and legs folded. His joyous expression was a picture of ebullience, everywhere from side streets to shopping mall displays. Seeing him made me smile.

It was only once I’d seen him for the first time, in the department store in the Izumi-chuō district, that I realized his image was seemingly everywhere in town. Photos, paintings, and little statues abounded. But it wasn’t until years later, during my PhD research, that I encountered him again.

He was a larger-than-life character of late 19th and early 20th century Sendai. Remembered today as Sendai Shirō, he was one of the city’s most beloved Meiji-era sons who is still regarded as a fortune kami. As I saw, he continues to enjoy a different kind of popularity today, as one of the city’s symbols. This is my retelling of his story.

Two Cities in One

In order to understand Sendai Shirō better, we need to grasp the lay of the land in the late-Edo Sendai that bore him.

Sendai as people think of it today is one city. It is easily shorthanded in hindsight as being the same as the Sendai Castle town in the Edo period. But this was not quite the case– it was not simply one entity but two in one.

Inside the Hirose River’s bend, built on and around Mount Aoba, was Sendai Castle. The senior Date vassals’ estates sat at the foot of Mount Aoba. Many of them had wealth and military power of their own, on par with small-time daimyo. Like the daimyo in Edo who performed alternate attendance on the shogun, they performed alternate attendance on the Date daimyo in Sendai.

From time to time, the Date daimyo would transfer their landholdings, promote and demote, or punish as necessary. This was a microcosm of the bakuhan taisei system that existed on the national scale. Commoners’ access to this side of the city was restricted, and because it was an active military installation of its time, nobody from outside of Sendai domain was allowed to enter Sendai Castle itself.

Sendai Castle’s gate, in a photo from the 1930s. (source, PD)

But across the Hirose River, on the flatter land between the Nanakita and Natori rivers that slopes gently toward the Pacific, was the commoners’ city. Some samurai lived there, in their own districts, but this was predominantly a non-samurai city, especially the parts that sat astride the Ōshū Highway.

At the city center, at the intersection of the highway and Ōmachi Avenue, was Bashō’s Crossing (Bashō-no-tsuji). Once, there were two-story structures with dragon sculptures on their ridgepoles, but today, only a modest monument to them remains.

The monument to the long-lost ridgepole dragons of Bashō-no-tsuji. (source)

Shirō from Around the Watchtower

A little bit to the east of Bashō’s crossing and the commoners’ city, the domain established Yōkendō Academy. This was its primary domain school, and was one of Japan’s preeminent educational institutions during the Edo period. On Yōkendō’s grounds, roughly in the northwest corner, stood a major firewatch tower. And in one of the adjoining neighborhoods lived the Haga family. Shirō, the 4th son in his generation, was born to the Haga family in 1855. Because he was from this area, some sources call him “Shirō from Around the Watchtower” (Yagurashita no Shirō).

The Haga family blurred the line between warrior and commoner. They had the right to a surname and to wear swords, and were in the business of firearms building and maintenance during the reign of Date Yoshikuni (1825-1874), the Date lord who ruled Sendai domain during the closing years of the Tokugawa Shogunate into the Boshin War.

This was a time when a family like the Haga would’ve had a lot of work to do. Despite the domain’s financial woes following the famines of the preceding decades, it still made a concerted effort to modernize its military forces and the technologies those forces relied upon.

Date Yoshikuni, daimyo of Sendai when Shirō was born

The Haga family still exists in Sendai today, and still is in the business of making things go boom– but it’s since switched its focus from guns to fireworks.

It seems that the more some things change, the more they stay the same.

A Little Fact, a Lot of Questions

We don’t know a lot for certain about Sendai Shirō, but here’s what we do know. He was born in Sendai in 1855. According to modern-day relatives who run a website devoted to him, his adult name was Toyotaka. He was the son of a family of gunsmiths, as noted above.

There are differing theories as to why he was nonverbal. Some claim it was a childhood illness. Others, including Mihara, claim that Shirō’s nonverbal status was the result of a catastrophic injury. And beyond that, we know that he was famous in Meiji era Sendai as a larger-than-life character.

In life and beyond, Sendai natives saw him as a fortune kami. He disappeared circa 1903 in Sukagawa, Fukushima Prefecture, but some accounts had him still alive and traveling even further afield to Busan, in Korea.

Beyond this, there are anecdotes of people who saw him, knew him, or thought they saw him.

Mihara Ryōkichi, the folklorist we recently covered in a biographical sketch, met Shirō. Mihara, then two years old, was playing in front of his family’s home in Kokubunchō when he vanished. There was an understandable panic as his family and the neighborhood looked for the missing child to no avail. Just as news reached the police box at Bashō-no-tsuji that Shirō had been sighted with a small child in his arms, Shirō brought the young Mihara back home, all smiles and with a bag of candy.

Mihara Ryokichi
Mihara in his old age, in an image reprinted in Kyōdoshi Sendai Mimibukuro.

In Kyōdoshi Sendai Mimibukuro, in his chapter heading on the man, Mihara relates the story. He says that for many years, his (Mihara’s) mother would often say “You grew up healthy because Shirō the Fortune Kami cared for you when you were small.”

Before we explore how the people of Sendai first regarded Shirō as a living kami, we have to stop and take stock of something a little more foundational. How are we understanding the concept of kami?

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Nyri Bakkalian

Dr. Nyri A. Bakkalian is an author, recovering academic, raconteur, and Your Favorite History Lesbian. Her PhD thesis focused on the Boshin War in the Tohoku region. She is the author of "Grey Dawn: A Tale of Abolition and Union" (Balance of Seven Press, 2020). She hosts Friday Night History on and the secret to her success is Arabic coffee. She misses Sendai daily.

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