The Salad Bowl. Vol. V, No. 4. May. 1997.
Photo of Jiro-cho, c. 1885 Shimizu no Jiro-cho (calligraphy by Hattori Reiichi)

Shimizu no Jiro-cho

One figure looming larger-than-life for many residents of eastern Shizuoka City is Shimizu no Jiro-cho. The life of Jiro-cho and the history of the eastern part of Shizuoka city in the 19th century are intertwined so closely that it's difficult to assess one without examining the other. Jiro-cho was a complex figure whose 74 year life had many facets: he is known variously as a godfather, philanthropist, business leader, and patriot. Since 1912 over one hundred movies about him have been produced and dozens of books about him have been published. With so many differing accounts of his life, the line between what is fact and what is legend is often murky.

Jiro-cho was the fourth child of Kumomizu Sanemon, a well-to-do ferry operator. Born in 1820 and adopted at an early age by his uncle, Jiro-cho quarreled frequently with his foster parents. In 1829 he was sent to live with another uncle in Yui. They found the youth too tough to handle and in 1835 sent him back to his foster parents.

After his foster father died in 1836, Jiro-cho worked at the family rice shop til the age of twenty-three. At age 18 he married his step-sister. The following year a traveling monk predicted Jiro-cho would die shortly. Disturbed by this prophecy, he decided to spend his remaining time drinking, gambling, and whoring. In March 1842 as he was returning from a play one night, some thieves accosted him. Jiro-cho, intoxicated at the time, resolved to quit drinking and never become such an easy target for hoodlums.

Three months after this, Jiro-cho got into a fight with a gambler and killed him. He then divorced and became a drifter. Jiro-cho went to Mikawa and studied fencing under Kira no Buichi, becoming proficient with the sword. He also learned a lot about business from his godfather, Terazu no Manozuke.

In 1845 Jiro-cho returned briefly to Shimizu to settle a dispute between two rival gang leaders, Tsumugi no Bunkichi and Wadajima no Tazaemon. He began gaining respect in the underworld and attracting a following. His underlings included Omasa (a former sumo wrestler from Nagoya), Komasa (from Hamamatsu), Tsunekichi (from Gunma), and many others. Aware that the police were looking for him, Jiro-cho hit the road frequently during this period. For the next two decades he lived in the shadows of the law, fighting rival gangs and slowly expanding his following. By 1866 over five hundred henchmen were part of Jiro-cho's syndicate. Before he passed away, about two thousand people were enlisted in Jiro-cho's private underworld army.

A New Era

Shortly before the seizure of Edo Castle by pro-imperial forces, Yamaoka Tesshuu (a shogunate representative) met secretly with Saigo Takamori (a leader of the imperial forces) in Shizuoka. It is claimed that Jiro-cho served as Yamaoka's bodyguard on this occasion. Other accounts place the first meeting of Jiro-cho and Tesshuu at a later date. At any rate, over the next few decades a deep friendship between Tesshuu and Jiro-cho developed.

In the spring of 1868 the new imperial government enlisted Jiro-cho as a police officer, ignoring his criminal record and entrusting him with the oversight of Shimizu Harbor. Jiro-cho was now in a position to achieve legitimacy. Though he still engaged in clandestine affairs, he was becoming shrewd enough to settle disputes without bloodshed. Seeking to develop a respectable image, Jiro-cho became active in many community development projects and charities. His philanthropic projects included opening an English language school, rebuilding Tesshuuji temple, providing aid for local fire victims, helping displaced samurai from Tokyo, and bringing a first-class physician to Shimizu City.

One act which earned Jiro-cho widespread respect occurred after pro- and anti-Tokugawa forces clashed in Shimizu harbor. The Kanrin Maru, a shogunate vessel, was attacked by three Imperial Navy ships on Sept. 18, 1868. The Kanrin Maru managed to escape, but around twenty people lost their lives. Jiro-cho recovered the corpses of seven sailors, cremated them, then provided for a proper burial. "Whether a person was pro- or anti-shogunate is irrelevant after death," he said, "the dead are Buddha."

When one of Jiro-cho's wives was murdered by a rival gang member in 1869, Jiro-cho averted full-scale gang warfare by negotiating with the rival gang leader. Although he was hot-tempered as a youth, with age Jiro-cho became more careful and calculating. Skilled at assessing character, Jiro-cho had an influential network of friends. His circle of contacts included the first governor of Shizuoka Prefecture, Viscount Enomoto Takeaki, and General Oyama of the Imperial Army.

From 1874 - 90 Jiro-cho was in charge of a company that developed the land around Fuji and Susono cities. Using prisoners as laborers, acres of rocky soil were made suitable for agriculture. Several Shinto shrines built by Jiro-cho stand there today.

In 1884 the Imperial Police initiated a crackdown on gambling. Jiro-cho was arrested and sentenced to seven years behind bars. Thanks to his powerful connections, however, he was released after 23 months. After prison, Jiro-cho opened a Japanese style inn near Hi-no-de Wharf in Shimizu. This remained in business until the Taisho era.

Although Jiro-cho married four times, he had no direct offspring. For a period he adopted Yamamoto Goro, whose father was killed in the Bosshin rebellion. Goro lived with Jiro-cho for ten years and wrote a vivid story about his life which helped transform Jiro-cho from a petty gang lord into a legend. However, Goro wasn't really cut out for Jiro-cho's lifestyle; he decided to become an imperial retainer and later a Buddhist monk.

During his remaining years, Jiro-cho became affectionately known as "the Old Man of the Harbor". He promoted many businesses in Shimizu and other in parts of the prefecture. Jiro-cho's projects included an oil field drilling program near Omaezaki, a special sumo event in Shizuoka, and contracts to expand Shimizu Harbor, where steamships and Imperial Navy vessels frequently called.

On June 12, 1893 Jiro-cho passed away. Eight thousand people attended his funeral and he was awarded the posthumous name "Seikiryou Kenyuuzan Gikaikouji". Today magnificent memorials to him are found at Baienji and Tesshuuji temples. In a sense, Shimizu Harbor is also part of his memorial.

Those interested in learning more about Jiro-cho should visit his birthhouse at 4-16 Minowa-cho. Located about 300 meters west of the Minato-bashi bridge, it is open from 9:00 to 5:00 everyday but Wednesday. Baienji and Tesshuuji temples are also worth visiting.

- Tim Newfields

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copyright 1997 by Tim Newfields and the Shizuokoa City International Association