One of the joys of Okazaki is its rich history. The modernization of Japan has transformed many urban areas into a sea of concrete, and although Okazaki has suffered the loss of much of its streetscape, many of the historical sites and a very large extent of the city’s intangible cultural assets such as its arts, traditional crafts, festivals and ceremonies have remained. One of the main attractions of Okazaki is that you can not only see this history, but also participate in it. In Okazaki, history is not just the past, but a living present. You can see much of the thousand plus years of rich history, but you can also participate in the festivals, learn the arts, and contribute to a local culture that values and has a great respect for its history and origins.
Okazaki’s history begins in the Jomon period, a mesolithic period that began in Japan around the 11th or 10th century B.C. and ended in northern Honshu around the 10th century AD. The oldest confirmed remains of human settlement date to around 8500 years ago, when hunter gatherers were attracted to the rich hunting grounds. These days the forests that dominated the flora of the flat floodplain are long gone, as this area is now the most urban part of Okazaki. The main reason behind the richness of the hunting was the rivers flowing through the city from the hills to the north and east. Shell mounds, pit dwellings and other artifacts such as Jomon pottery fragments (the pottery giving the period its name) remain and archealogical research continues. You can see some of the remains of settlements at places such as Murakami Iseki in the eastern Okazaki.
The rivers continued to play a major part in the development of the area as the Jomon period gave way to the Yayoi period (again named from its distinctive pottery) and early agriculture. Along with the mild climate, the occasional flooding of the rivers provided rich alluvial soils, the flat landscape near the rivers made it easy to clear forest for fields, and communication and trade with other communities made for quick dissemination of ideas, seeds and techniques. Agriculture boomed and a small town began to emerge near the junction of the two major rivers. With greater food supply, food source stability and improved storage capacity, a larger population began to emerge that also included iron tools and weapons, and wet rice agriculture.
The success of Okazaki was indicated when the area was selected as the cultivation site for the rice used in the ceremonies conducted at Japan’s most important shrine, Ise Jingu (the Grand Shrines of Ise) in what is now Mie prefecture, about 2 hours from Okazaki by train. Apart from the quality of the rice, we can also again see the value of the rivers connecting Okazaki with Mikawa Bay, as the rice would have been transported to the imperial shrines in Ise by boat. Historic temples in Okazaki such as Shinpukuji (6th century AD) and Kichioki (now Takisanji, 7th century AD) date from this time. An indication of the prosperity of the area is the ruins of Kitano-Haiji temple, built during the Asuka period (593-710), and the 49 tumuli tombs discovered in 8 groups north of the Aoki river from 1961 – the large Iwazu tumulus with its three stone chambers being the best representative.
By the 8th century the emerging Japanese state had a permanent capital at first in Nara (Heijo-kyo) in the Kinai plain and then in Kyoto (Heian-kyo), and Buddhism had diffused throughout Japan. The construction of temples was an important part of the nation building, and the social and political system that evolved with a gradually centralized state. The road leading from the Kinai area leading east along the Pacific coast passed through Okazaki, which was now the largest town in the Mikawa region. The old temple of Hozoji (8th century AD) in southeastern Okazaki near the old route has its origin in this early period.
With the establishment of central rule from Kyoto (Heian-kyo) during the Heian period, the country was ruled through the imperial court. Vast estates were established, and power and wealth correlated with land. Early in the Heian Period (794 to 1185) the actual control of power gradually began to shift from the imperial family to an aristocratic class (principally the Fujiwara family) who appointed the regents and governed in the Emperor’s name. The Fujiwara family held onto power for an extended period until they became too dependent upon and were then eclipsed by an emerging military caste. Armies marched through Okazaki as the struggle for power see-sawed between the Taira (Heike) and Minamoto (Genji) clans. With the victory of the later, the Heian period ended and the long rule of Japan by the military caste, the samurai, began. For Okazaki this had an enormous impact. Previously Okazaki was a waystation between Kyoto and the peripheral regions of the Japanese state, still expanding eastwards into the Tohoku region of northern Honshu. With the establishment on a military government (shogunate) by the Minamoto in Kamakura southeast of what is now Tokyo, Okazaki found itself roughly halfway between the imperial capital and the political capital of the country. The road was an important communications and trade route, and Okazaki prospered from the passing traffic. Kichioki temple was rebuilt into Takisanji at this time by a priest named Kanden, an elder cousin of the first Kamakura shogun, Minamoto Yoritomo (1147-1199). On the first anniversary of Yorimoto’s death, Kanden began constructing a Zen temple here and enshrined Yoritomo’s hair and teeth inside the womb of the statue of the Goddess of Mercy. These days, the main hall of the temple is famous for its perfection of the Kamakura Period (1185-1333) style of architecture – dating from its reconstruction in that style in the year 1222. The beautiful Yanagi-do in Myogenji temple was also built during this time.
Okazaki remained a regional town throughout the period of rule from Kamakura, and again through the period that followed it – the military government in Kyoto of the Ashikaga shoguns. The powerful shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu built Tenonji temple at this time, around about the same time that he built his villa in Kyoto (which is now Kinkakuji temple – famous for its golden pavilion). Corruption, poor governance and the on-going struggle for supremacy saw the country gradually descend into civil war and the breakdown of central authority. The prosperity and peace that Okazaki’s economy and culture depended on was interrupted as battles between local warriors for power fractured markets, and tolls imposed on the highway by regional warlords disrupted trade between Okazaki and other parts of Japan. The rich agricultural lands of Okazaki became a prize, and it was as a result of this warfare that Okazaki castle was built in 1452. The castle built at that time was quite different from the structure we see today, what was significant about Okazaki castle was that it was one of the first castles to be built not on a mountaintop for defensive purposes, but on the plains to ensure the domination of the rice fields and rivers. The castle was built on the junction of the Sugo (Oto) and Iga rivers, forcing the relocation of the Inasaki Jinja shrine – where rice grown for the ceremonies at Ise Jingu was stored. The long history of Okazaki as a castle town had begun.
During this period, a family from the hills in northern Okazaki gradually came to prominence. They were called the Matsudaira, and by the late 15th century controlled Okazaki castle and the region. The 4th head of the family, Matsudaira Chikatada, built the Iga Hachimangu shrine on the banks of the Iga river upstream from the castle in 1470 (it’s a beautiful shrine and the departure point for the parade of the Ieyasu Gyoretsu – a festival held early April each year) and the historic temple of Daijuji in 1475, which became the family temple of the Matsudaira and is one the most important in Okazaki with many cultural assets. Much of Okazaki’s streetscape has been lost over the years as architecture has embraced more modern designs, however an indication of the value Okazaki places on its heritage is best seen from Daijuji. Looking through the main southern gate, it is still possible to see the castle – as a city ordinance still bans the construction of any building large enough to obstruct the viewline enjoyed in the 15th century, despite the increase in the value of land over the years.
Chikatada’s grandson did not fare as well, and by the time his great grandson Matsudaira Takechiyo was born in Okazaki castle in January 1543 (December 1542 by the old calendar) the clan appeared to be on the edge on being vanquished as powerful neighbours struggled to obtain control of Okazaki. The battlefield of Azukizaka near what is now the Hikarigaoka Girls High School, was the scene of one of many such clashes between the Oda family to the west and the powerful Imagawa clan to the east. When the Oda defeated the Matsudaira again in 1547, Takechiyo’s father appealed to the Imagawa for aid – their price was that Takechiyo would become a hostage at their castle in Sumpu in what is now Shizuoka. However after he left Okazaki by boat he was he captured enroute by the Oda, who threatened to kill the young boy unless the beleagued Matsudaira broke the alliance with the Imagawa. Nobody in Okazaki who had seen Takechiyo leave the castle by small boat would have envisioned that 6 decades later, the former hostage would be the undisputed ruler of Japan, and the man who brought an end to centuries of civil war and chaos. The greatest shogun of all – Tokugawa Ieyasu.
To some extent it can be said that Tokugawa Ieyasu made Okazaki what it is today. Breaking free from the Imagawa in 1560, at the age of 17 he became the ruler of the castle town. Rebuilding its defences, he crushed a revolt by a religious sect, narrowly escaped death near Daijuji temple (where at one stage he was contemplating suicide rather than risk capture – the monks talked him out of it), and again at the second battle fought at Azukizaka – where he was shot – but the bullet didn’t penetrate his armour. From 1566 onwards he took the name Tokugawa Ieyasu, and secured the title of daimyo of the Mikawa province. He narrowly escaped defeat again in 1572 by Takeda Shingen at Mikatagahara. Three years later with valuable support from his former enemy Oda Nobunaga (based in what is now Nagoya) he marched from Okazaki castle and defeated the Takeda at Nagashino and Shitagahara, completing the conquest of the Takeda’s lands some 7 years of struggle later. Politically astute, he found an acceptable compromise with Nobunaga’s successor Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and left Okazaki with his warriors for distant Edo, now Tokyo. After marching through Okazaki again enroute to the battle of Sekigahara, Tokugawa Ieyasu became the shogun of Japan in 1603.
During the long period of peace that followed during the Tokugawa shogunate (1603-1868), Okazaki prospered. Tokugawa Ieyasu ordered the demolition of minor castles, limiting each province to only 1 castle. Okazaki was strategically important, not only for its economy, but again for its position on the highway – the Tokaido – linking the new political capital in Edo (now Tokyo) with the imperial capital of Kyoto. The Tokaido had 27 curves as it approached Okazaki castle, improving its defence. A great bridge was built across the Yahagi river, and the town became the 38th “post town” (juku) on the highway. Travellers, merchants, processions of daimyo visiting or returning from Edo, missions from Korea, pilgrims en route to distant temples etc – all stayed and rested in Okazaki. The town took advantage of its place as the junction between the highway and the rivers, with Okazaki also becoming an important river port – transporting rice, miso, stoneworks, sake and other manufactures. An important industry was gunpowder production – the vassal families of the Tokugawa/Matsudaira clans in the Mikawa region being trusted with this vital industry. As gunpowder cannot be stored indefinitely, Tokugawa Ieyasu’s son Hidetada granted permission for the manufacture of fireworks – and to this day 4 centuries later, Okazaki still dominates Japan’s fireworks industry. As the Tokugawa’s ancestral home – the town benefited throughout the shogunate’s rule. Daijuji temple was bestowed with new buildings and land, the beautiful Takisan Toshogu was built by Ieyasu’s grandson, Tokugawa Iemitsu next to Takisanji temple. It was during this time that most of the foundation of modern Okazaki were established, and the arts, crafts, festivals and other traditions continue today.
The collapse of the shogunate following the civil war that brought the Meiji restoration of 1868 ended Okazaki’s role as a post town and as the seat of the Mikawa daimyo. Japan embarked on a period of massive and rapid modernization. The Meiji government demolished the castle in 1873 (with unseemly haste in the opinion of many of the locals), industry was encouraged, and Okazaki developed a thriving textile industry, metal working factories, and other manufacturing industries. Agriculture was modernized, and land reform transformed the rural areas and villages. Traditional industries continued, but gradually the construction of new roads, and in particular the arrival of railroads meant that from being a major post town, traffic increasingly bypassed the city. The rivers ceased to be a major route for transportation, and deforestation of parts of northern Okazaki, the construction of dams, pumping of water for increased agricultural production and the spread of the urban area caused some siltation, accelerating the demise of the riverboats. Water wheel powered textile mills continued to use the rivers, but by and large the focus switched from river boats to the iron horse.
A visitor to Okazaki may be surprised to find that the main JR railway station is located quite a distance from the castle and the old town center. Part of the reason behind this was the conservatism of the population and local officials. The city eventually accepted the inevitable and a railway was built through areas closer to Okazaki (the “Higashi Okazaki” station of the Aichi Electric Railway – now called Meitetsu) albeit at a safe distance on the south side of the Sugo river. The result though is that the old part of Okazaki has retained some of its flavor, something that would not have been possible had a major station been built in the old part of the town. The other result was that instead of developing into a major metropolis like Nagoya, the town remained a regional center, not being designated a city until 1916, when the textile industry was booming due to the demand created by the First World War. The geographic and commercial center of the city has been gradually shifting southwards ever since, with rapid development in the last 30 years of the area between Higashi Okazaki and JR Okazaki stations.
From 1926 Japan entered the Showa period. As an urban center, Okazaki was badly affected by the worldwide great depression beginning in 1929, as tariffs reduced income from exports and domestic demand also slumped. Industry began to consolidate, with several large factories being established, but this period also coincided with the rise of military rule and a long period of war, firstly on the Asian mainland, and later in the Pacific. Conscription was extended to almost all able bodied men, and women and children were also delegated jobs and other war related duties. As the war in the Pacific continued, mounting casualties, the submarine blockade, and the bombing of railways and ports induced grief, food shortages and suffering amongst the populace. On the 20th of July in 1945, B29 bombers raided Okazaki, targetting the railway junctions. It was only time the war came to Okazaki, killing 230 citizens, and destroying 7312 buildings. Fortunately, most of the historic areas of the city escaped destruction. Less than 3 weeks later, Hiroshima was destroyed by an atomic bomb, and the subsequent surrender spared Okazaki from further damage.
As Japan recovered from World War Two, the reconstruction of the economy, a steadily growing population, and the changes in the social and political structure transformed the city. The historic streetscape began to give way to modern architecture, though even today some parts remain, particularly on Tenma road, where old shops built in during the reign of the Tokugawa such as Nagataya and Itoso remain as testimony to Okazaki’s role as a Tokaido post town. Temples that had been unable to carry out much needed maintenance during the war when funds had been diverted were carefully restored. And in 1959, the symbol of the city was rebuilt. The walls and moats of the castle had stood silent since 1868, but the reconstruction of the donjon, an exact replica of that torn down by the Meiji Government, returned the castle to its pride of place. This is where the Ieyasu Gyoretsu ends its procession from Iga Hachiman shrine each April, and where Okazaki’s massive fireworks festival takes place on the 1st Saturday of August each year.
In the postwar era Okazaki became a satellite city of Nagoya. Close enough to be within commuting distance, far enough away to maintain its own identity. Instead of booming, Okazaki grew at a manageable pace. The majority of the manufacturing plants are located away from the city’s old town center, preserving a quiet and residential feel. Service industries have flourished, and the city has a high standard of living and livability. Traditional arts and crafts continue to be passed down from generation to generation, but at the same time the city has excellent research centers, high tech industry and sophisticated services.
The result is that Okazaki has been able to retain much its heritage, and the people a strong sense of the link between the vibrant culture of today and the vibrancy of Okazaki’s past.