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Samurai Astronomer Eclipses the Calendar2012.09.24

    Until the mid 18th Century, the calendar used in Britain was the Julian Calendar, based on the solar year, which is a quarter of a day longer than 365 days. Those quarters add up, and by 1753 the calendar was off by 11 days. The government decided to switch over to the more accurate Gregorian Calendar on 3 September 1753, the following day becoming 14 September, which led to protests in the streets with people shouting, “Give us back our 11 days!” The old calendar had become so real to them that they believed that the government had stolen 11 days from their lives.


    A movie recently released in Japan addresses the same problem in a parallel universe in Japan. Tenchi Meisatsu (Tenchi: The Samurai Astronmer), directed by Yojiro Takita and distributed by Kadokawa Pictures, focuses on Yasui Santetsu (1639~1715), the Samurai Astronomer who reformed the Japanese calendar during the Edo Period. While calendar reform may seem like an academic issue, in fact it involved serious risk of life and reputation, requiring the courage of Galileo to stand up to the existing authorities, in this case the Emperor’s court, which had no intention of changing the calendar system imported from China that had been in use for the past 800 years. The problem was that the traditional calendar administered by the Imperial Court contained errors which had led over time to an inaccuracy of two days.


    Yasui Santetsu was appointed by the Tokugawa Military government to research the movements and positions of the stars from many locations in Japan, as well as follow solar eclipses as predicted by the old calendar, to gather evidence sufficient to overturn the old system and replace it with a calendar that was more accurate. This involved painstaking observations and data collection, as well as extensive research into existing astronomical theory, all in an age when most people in Japan still believed that the earth was flat, the sun revolved around the earth, and virtually all contact with foreigners or foreign learning was illegal or tightly controlled by the government. A daunting task, complicated by the political rivalry between the Tokugawa government in Edo, and the Imperial Court in Kyoto.


    The average person was not likely to notice if a rare event such as a solar eclipse occurred on a different day than predicted by the old calendar. However, every day on the calendar was marked in highly specific ways, which affected everything from when festivals should be held, to which calendar days were fortuitous for marriage, travel, or ceremony, and which days were not. Daily life was administered to a high degree by following the dictates of the traditional Chinese calendar. Therefore, if the existing calendar was proved inaccurate by two days, it could spell the unraveling of society. The military government was interested in establishing if the new Yamato (Japanese) calendar proposed by Yasui Santetsu could prove more accurate than the old Chinese Calendar. The proof was in prediction of Heavenly events such as solar eclipses. The Imperial Court was more interested in preserving than questioning tradition.


    The drama of Tenchi Meisatsu goes far beyond the mathematical measurements and empirical evidence proving the accuracy of the new calendar, impressive as that was for a country closed to the outside world. The drama extends to issues of political intrigue at the highest level, to the Samurai code in being willing to die for a cause, to romance, loyalty, and attempts at assassination.


    What is particularly intriguing is the fact that Yasui Santetsu was not only a Samurai, but a Go player by profession. The game of Go features throughout the film, not only as a symbol of the external struggles for power and position, but also as a metaphor for the way in which Yasui Santetsu attempts to understand the position of the stars, as if they were stones on a celestial Go board. He bets his life on his prediction of the exact day and time of a solar eclipse, and invites the people to see for themselves in the presence of Court officials.


    Although the movie does not yet seem to be available with English subtitles, given the fact that director Yojiro Takita won an Oscar in 2009 for best foreign language film for his movie Departures, his latest film Tenchi Meisatsu is bound to receive international attention. It is worth watching to see the high level of mathematics and astronomy that was possible in a totally non-Western culture, using traditional Japanese tools for measurement and calculation such as the abacus. It is also fascinating to see how in Japan even science was driven by the Samurai ethic of giving one’s life in service to a mission. The director Yojiro Takita says that the message of the film was to breathe new life (ibuki) and inspire young people to stand up for their convictions and improve society, no matter how much resistance they get from the status quo. The film is historically interesting, but is also a story of courage to pursue reform against resistance. A film, and a director worth watching.



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    Article Writer

    William Reed

    William Reed is a renowned author-speaker who coaches physical finesse and flexible focus for a creative career path. A certified Master Trainer in Guerrilla Marketing and 7th-dan in Aikido, he combines practical wisdom of East and West to help you learn personal branding at the Entrepreneurs Creative Edge.

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