Japan is famous for its samurai warriors and some of the most powerful came from the Kagoshima region. Historically called the Satsuma domain, the area was ruled for over 700 years by the powerful feudal lords of the Shimadzu clan.
The Shimadzu clan had a storied lineage and were descended from the Seiwa Genji branch of the Minamoto clan. Proud of their ancient noble roots and fiercely independent, they had a large and loyal following of samurai warriors in their service.
The people of Kagoshima today are still very proud of their samurai roots, no more so than Shigemizu Kenrou. An employee at Hioki City Hall, he has decided to use his free time to promote the rich history of the area. On weekdays he works a desk job in a typical Japanese local government office, but when the weekend rolls around he turns into a full on samurai decked out head to toe in traditional armour to promote warrior culture and the Hioki region.
Shigemizu is a member of the Hioki City PR Busho-tai (literally Promotion Warlords) a group of twelve local government workers who use their free time to dress up as famous Shimadzu warriors in samurai armour and appear at events all around the country. The Hioki area has a rich samurai tradition being the birthplace of reformer Shimadzu Tadayoshi as well as his four grandsons, who would eventually conquer the whole of Kyushu under the Shimadzu banner. Shigemizu says, “Satsuma samurai were tough. It was all or nothing – 0 or 100%, nothing in between. Satsuma people have a saying ‘nakoyoka hittobe,’ meaning basically don’t whine, just go all out.”
Shigemizu was influenced by TV dramas at an early age. “I used to watch the samurai dramas on TV with my dad when I was a kid,” he says. “They were so cool – Oda Nobunaga, Date Masamune, all the great generals.” Feeling that he wanted to dedicate his working life to promoting the Hioki area, Shigemizu got a job right out of high school working at City Hall.
When an opportunity came about to promote the samurai history of Hioki City he jumped at the chance. “At first I thought about playing Shimadzu Yoshihiro or one of the other four brothers, but I figured that a younger guy would be better than me,” he says. “I thought an older role model like Shimadzu Tadayoshi was more appropriate.”
Shigemizu is also a fan of Tadayoshi’s Jisshin-ko Iroha-no-uta – 47 precepts each beginning with a letter of the traditional Japanese alphabet were used to educate the samurai of Satsuma province in basic morals for over 300 years. “My favourite epithet is ‘both the man who lives in a grand mansion, and he who lives in a squalid shack own a palace in their hearts,’ which means we shouldn’t just strive to be rich, but have bigger goals in life.”
Shigemizu has also been a hardcore rock musician since his teens, and found a unique way to pair his twin passions of history and music. Shigemizu says, “when we were thinking of a concept for the Busho-tai the idea came up that music was important to the samurai. In the Sengoku Period they used music to get all the samurai fired up then they would go into battle all crazy.”
The result was a hardcore samurai band thrashing out rock music with the same intensity and passion their ancestors had going into battle. Shigemizu even went as far as to make his own guitar resembling Satsuma Biwa – the historical lute like instrument used by the Shimadzu samurai.
The band covered an old samurai song called Myoen-ji Mairi no Uta. The song is sung during Myoen-ji Mairi, a historical 20 km pilgrimage in full samurai armour held once a year in Kagoshima to remind participants of the suffering of the samurai who left Kagoshima to fight in the Battle of Sekigahara in the year 1600. The event formed a part of the education of samurai throughout the Edo period and has continued until the present day.
Asked if his wife minds the weekends being taken up by rocking out in samurai gear Shigemizu responds, “I’ve been like this since I was a kid really, always involved with music. When I was 21, I built myself a house in the mountains so I could do band practice. I met the wife back then and she been with me ever since so I guess she’s used to me.” His three daughters are equally proud to have a cool samurai dad working hard to promote Hioki City. “To them I’m the bald guy who wears fundoshi (traditional Japanese underwear) every day,” he jokes.
Visitors to Hioki City can try out wearing armour themselves at the Yoshitoshi Gungi-jo (literally samurai war council). With over fifty sets of armour to choose from and instruction on how to put on the armour for yourself it’s a great experience to tie in with a visit to the area and a novel way to interact with the locals. “People visiting Japan love trying on the armour,” says Shigemizu. “They feel like they are in a scene from ‘The Last Samurai’ or ‘Ghost of Tsushima’ or something.”
Frivolity aside, Shigemizu is deadly serious about promoting the region. “It’s not just about the swords and armour. I want people to feel the culture, eat the food – the authentic stuff, and feel the real Kagoshima. This is just an introduction to that. Wear the armour, meet the people, eat together, chat, and hopefully become a fan of Kagoshima.”