Photo/IllutrationGeisha play Okichi, left, and other characters for a performance of “Seicho Tojin Okichi” in the Takouma district of Shimoda, Shizuoka Prefecture, in December. (Eiichi Murano)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

The strumming of a samisen produced a sad melody while a singer’s voice echoed through the room: “Isn’t that Okichi, carried in a litter?”

Two black-haired, kimono-clad women with shining “kanzashi” ornamental hairpins danced to the music. The singing continued: “The spring rain at Shimoda Port … Black ships off the coast … Tears still blocking the sight.”

It was a scene from “Seicho Tojin Okichi,” a song and dance performance performed by local “geigi” (geisha) in a private house in the Takouma district of Shimoda, Shizuoka Prefecture, in December.

The performance is themed on Okichi, a geisha who provided personal care for U.S. Consul General Townsend Harris in the city where the first U.S. Consulate in Japan was established after the arrival of U.S. Commodore Matthew Perry’s “Black Ships” in 1854. The event was organized by Bakumatsu Okichi Kenkyukai, a civic group set up to study Okichi and other themes from the end of the Edo Period (1603-1867).

Novels and movies whose storylines portrayed Okichi as being separated from her lover to serve national policy became popular during the early Showa Era (1926-1989). Shimoda-based geisha handed over the baton to the next generations after World War II, saying that “Seicho Tojin Okichi” was a dance dedicated to their senior colleague who acted as a go-between for Japan and the United States.

There was a time when the cherished tradition was in jeopardy because geisha stopped joining the performance. But thanks to support from Minako Kushida, an “okami” (proprietor of a geisha house), and other volunteers, the dance has been performed during the Black Ships Festival held annually in May and other occasions in recent years.

The inaugural festival was held in 1934, with Joseph Grew, U.S. ambassador to Japan, and other personnel invited to Shimoda, when the city was receiving attention due to the Okichi-driven popularity.

After a hiatus due to the war, the festival resumed and its participants started in 1953 to exchang vows of goodwill for Japan and the United States at Shimoda Park in front of the monument commemorating the opening of Japan to the West.

A memorial service is held at Gyokusenji temple, where the U.S. Consulate once stood, to console the spirits of five crew members of the Black Ships who died while staying abroad. A U.S. military band joins the event, while crew members of U.S. military ships also venture into the city.

The city government announced last year that the festival’s turnout reached more than 200,000 during its three-day run.

The Perry Road district, which extends from a spot near the mouth of the Inozawagawa river to Ryosenji temple, where the Japan-U.S. Shimoda Treaty was signed, is especially crowded.

Lined with retro-looking buildings, willows and stone lanterns, the district has an atmosphere of traditional Japan.

Tosaya, a soul music bar housed in a building built in the late Edo Period, is a place where Yoshida Shoin, an intellectual who advocated the “sonno joi” movement to restore the emperor and expel foreigners, left a letter to his relative just before he tried to smuggle himself into one of the Black Ships to study abroad.

The bar is packed with music-loving Westerners during the festival.

Spencer Viner, 71, head of the Japan-America Society of Rhode Island where Perry’s hometown of Newport is located, has visited Shimoda more than 10 times. When I sent an e-mail to ask him about his impressions of the Perry Road and Ryosenji, he replied: “I think Perry Road in Shimoda is a wonderful tribute to Commodore Mathew C. Perry. Perry Road (and its vicinity) are magnificent to look at with their beautiful scenery, unique architecture and American jasmine lining the streets as you walk along the canal.”

He added: “Shimoda is one of the most beautiful cities in the world with its gorgeous beaches. … I have always said the hospitality of Shimoda is legend.”

To make use of the blessings of the sea and human resources, the city will be a host town for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics to foster exchanges with members of the U.S. national surfing team. The aim is to develop a new bond with the United States.

Members of the Izu Systematized Goodwill Guide, a local group of volunteer interpreters headed by Norimoto Tsuchiya, are also making efforts to provide hospitality for foreigners and promote local information to international communities while they deepen exchanges with Viner.

Many U.S. VIPs have left their mark in Shimoda, including President Jimmy Carter, whose 1979 visit to the city is commemorated by a monument. Except for Okichi, however, the city is short of local historical sites and traditions from a period during which Japan opened its ports to modern trade.

For that reason, Bakumatsu Okichi Kenkyukai is working on a comic book themed on Sukezo Nishiyama, who worked at the U.S. Consulate at Gyokusenji.

“We find drama also in Sukezo,” said Takeshi Sugimoto, 56, head of the study group who is writing the storyline for the comic book. “We want to widely publicize the story by making it easy to read.”

A Shimoda man similar in age to Okichi will also be featured in the cartoon in an effort to pass down the tragic romance through generations in a courteous manner.