In my work as a historian, I frequently encounter two challenges: reading between the lines and counteracting erasure. The latter is especially tough when pursuing gutsy women whose historical roles are regularly erased or diminished — a hurdle I also face when seeking out LGBT history.
So it’s important and rewarding for me to know how to read between the lines, to make that effort to bring give historical figures their due — perhaps doubly so when my research takes me to the intersection of LGBT history and gutsy women. That’s where I found Koike Chikyoku.
At first glance she’s easy to ignore in favor of more famous or immediately compelling topics in that era of Japanese history. After all, she’s a minor artist from a backcountry region, and her work isn’t especially renowned. But on reading between the lines, a compelling picture gradually emerges. We can establish with some ease that Chikyoku was artist, warrior and traveler.
With a bit more effort, we can also piece together something of her as a person. But history, and human beings, are complicated, and Chikyoku’s story also leaves its fair share of questions.
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Koike Chikyoku was born in 1824, in Fukudome, a town of Kaga domain. Today, Fukudome is part of modern day Hakusan City, in Ishikawa Prefecture. Kaga in this period was the wealthiest feudal domain in Japan, and its ruling family, the Maeda, was a powerful patron of the arts. Her father was a samurai vassal in Maeda service.
As a young woman, Chikyoku traveled around Japan in pursuit of art training. By the 1860s she was in Kyoto. Kyoto, home to the imperial court, was also an outpost of the shogun’s government, and a center of culture and the arts. However, in the 1860s it was also increasingly violent, as young samurai unaffiliated with any ruling clan gathered in the city and sought to effect political change through political intrigue and assassination. A period film from the 1980s, Byakkotai, quips that assassination was so commonplace in Kyoto that the locals had a joke. They said that the imperial era name, then Bunkyu, “literate story,” ought to be changed to Ansatsu, “Assassination.”
Against Kyoto’s well-cultured but violent backdrop, Chikyoku grew close with the samurai population of Aizu domain. Aizu was the northern clan tasked by the shogun with the increasingly difficult duty of keeping the peace. The Aizu forces were posted to Kyoto for nearly five years, with several thousand of them deployed in rotation in that time.
After the outbreak of the 1868 civil war, Aizu troops were defeated in battle at Toba-Fushimi, south of Kyoto. After a retreat to the shogun’s cosmopolitan capital of Edo (now Tokyo), the Aizu troops withdrew from the city to their home territory in the north. Despite any earlier affiliation with them, and a career spent mostly as an artist, Chikyoku followed the Aizu troops in their retreat to friendly territory. She was one of many non-Aizu natives who sought safety in Aizu. In the words of a then-popular song, if you wish a capital, look no further! See how Aizu has become Edo.
Women who fought in Aizu had a multitude of roles. I’ve written of another Aizu woman, Yamamoto Yae, in an earlier Gutsy Broads article. Yet rather than fight alongside the men like Yae did, Chikyoku joined an ad-hoc, all-women’s unit. Nakano Takeko, who functioned as de facto commander of the unit, is a frequent fixture of popular depictions of the fighting in Aizu. These women fought alongside soldiers of the western-trained former Shogunate Army, in an ultimately failed attempt to break the enemy siege and relieve Aizu Castle.
Upon capture after the Battle of Ruibashi in early October, the gutsy, unexpected combat career of the Kaga-born artist was over.
After her release, Chikyoku moved to Toyohashi (the modern city of Toyohashi, Aichi Prefecture). She resumed her artistic career and by all indications, lived peacefully. She died in Toyohashi in 1878, at age 54.
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The biographical sketch above was assembled from fewer than 10 sources. On its surface, Chikyoku’s life may seem unremarkable, or otherwise the territory of highly specialized or very local historians and biographers. However, a close reading of these sources, and mindfulness of the erasure of LGBT people from history, brought up two especially important questions for me. First, why would a woman with no military background cross over to what for her was the far end of Japan to fight alongside other women? This sort of action hardly seems a matter of chance. My second question was prompted by a line in Chikyoku’s biography as it appears in Volume 3 of A History of Ishikawa Prefecture: Chikyoku customarily disliked [the intimate company of] men. Even while lodging on the road, she would post a notice on the door to her room barring men’s entry. I found myself asking: what’s going on here? The “man-hating lesbian” trope is a trope, and it’s not my intention to indulge it here. But as a lesbian myself, on encountering that line in A History of Ishikawa Prefecture, I’m left feeling haunted, as if I’ve caught a familiar glimpse out of the corner of my eye.
While some answers in history are clear-cut, history as a whole is anything but neat. As a woman at war, Chikyoku’s role is obscure, but remembered. As for her orientation, the truth is that I don’t have enough information to draw any solid conclusions. I have just enough information to draw a question mark, like a momentary, lingering afterimage that seems all too familiar, yet is still out of reach. It seems to almost demand further exploration.
So I sit here in the second decade of the 21st century and ponder the woman behind the words on my screen. And I ask myself: How many historical women, LGBT or otherwise, are tucked away in half-forgotten tomes and obscure archives?
Of course, I know: there are many. All we have to do is know where, and how, to look.
About the author:
Nyri A. Bakkalian is a young historian specializing in Japanese and military history, trained under the tutelage of renowned political historian Richard Smethurst. She has a soft spot for local history and unknown stories, preferably uncovered during road trips. When not hunting for unknown history, Nyri can most often be found sketching while enjoying a good cup of Turkish coffee. Follow her on Twitter at @riversidewings.