Shimazaki Toson (1872-1943) is one of many literary figures with connections to the Nakasendo, but Toson is the one with the closest and longest association. Toson was born and raised in Magome and he wrote about Magome, Kiso-Fukushima (where he had relatives by marriage), and the Nakasendo at length in his autobiographical novels.
Toson was one of Japan’s most accomplished novelists of the 20th century. His second novel, The Broken Commandment, established firmly a Japanese school of naturalism in literature which drew from European origins but was markedly Japanese. The naturalists strove to rid their writings of flowery language and artificial situations, preferring to write about individuals in their actual social settings. Thus, Toson’s Commandment was a depiction of the attempt of a burakumin who tried to ‘pass’ himself as an ordinary Japanese; in the end, the tension and self-degradation of the protagonist’s position is broken by self-confession.
Many of Toson’s novels depicted social realism even more fully than The Broken Commandment; they were explicitly, and often painfully, autobiographical. In The Family and New Life, the author describes the events he and his family lived through. His books, therefore, provide the reader with thinly fictionalized accounts of the lives and experiences of people of Toson’s class in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when so much was changing very quickly. New Life is a particularly exceptional novel which caused a sensation when it was published. It is a confessional which recounts Toson’s affair with his niece, her pregnancy, and his flight to France.
In his last novel, ‘Before the Dawn’, Toson departed from the autobiographical form and wrote a semi-historical, semi-fictional account of his father’s life during the period of the Meiji restoration. His family was of the farmer class in the Edo period, but were well off and the hereditary headmen of Magome village and owner of the honjin throughout the period. His father represents the experience of a member of the rural elite striving to participate in and experience the vast changes of the Meiji era. As with many of his generation, the stresses of the age led to great bitterness and disillusionment.
It was in this last novel that Toson recounts a story which is often confused with the acts of Takayama Hikokuro whose statue appears at Sanjo bridge in Kyoto at the beginning of the Nakasendo. Toson described how nine swordsmen of the late Edo period crept into the Tojiin where the Ashikaga shoguns were memorialized and struck off the head of Ashikaga Takauji and two other shoguns. The heads were displayed in the riverbed beneath Sanjo bridge with a notice proclaiming that some contemporary men (meaning the Tokugawa shoguns and their retainers) were even more evil than the Ashikaga for their usurpation of the emperor’s authority. Unfortunately, Toson continues, one of the plotters was a police spy who turned the rest in.
The swordsmen’s action, shortly before a visit to Kyoto by the Tokugawa shogun, was a significant stirring of the political waters; at the same time it turned at least one society from studying the Way of the Sword to more political matters, including the possibility of overthrowing the shogunate. Toson’s story did not mention Takayama, but the popular mind was frequently confused and sometimes Takayama is mistakenly said to have cut off the heads of the Ashikaga statues.
Many original manuscripts, including Before the Dawn, are kept in a former inn in Magome associated with Toson’s family. The site of the honjin where Toson’s father lived has become home to a memorial hall dedicated to this famous author.