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The ‘rusontsubos’ from Luzon

In 1963 the Japanese broadcasting company NHK began what was to become annual teleserye or television historical drama series. Naturally, their tales were heavy on feudal lords, castles, swords, samurai and battle scenes. They were originally produced to make TV compete with cinema.

It is significant that the teleserye “Ogon no Hibi” (The Golden Days), which had 51 episodes running from Jan. 8 to Dec. 24 1978, was focused not so much on ancient nobility or the life of the upper class as on the life and adventures of an ordinary merchant in the 16th century—Ruson Sukezaemon. As we all know, “Ruson” is the way Japanese mispronounce “Luzon,” and in early times it referred not just to the island but to the Spanish Philipines. So popular was this NHK teleserye that many Japanese of a certain generation still remember and tell me about it.

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The story is woven from many threads, mostly fiction. One of its sources is the seven-volume compilation of 305 ancient stories related to tea, tea-drinking and tea culture, by Shigenori Chikamatsu (1695-1778). From these 129 were chosen and published in 1804 under the title “Chaso kanwa” later translated into English as “Stories from a Tearoom Window.” The 25th story, “The Homecoming of Naya Suke-emon,” goes:

“In the year Mizunoto-Mi of the Bunroku era (1593), a merchant of Sakai in Izumi Province, Naya Suke-emon by name, went abroad to Luzon and brought back fifty tea-leaf jars. The following year he asked the chief magistrate of the town, Ishida Mokusuke, to present Chinese umbrellas, ten candles, and two live musk deer, together with the tea-leaf jars to Lord Hideyoshi.

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“The lord looked at the jars, and requested [the tea master] Rikyu to classify them and to set a price on each, then had them all exhibited in the room next to his inner reception room, and put them on sale. In four or five days all but three jars were sold. Suke-emon wanted to take the remaining ones home, but he was told these had already been taken for purchase by the lord himself. Since then such excellent tea-leaf jars have come to be called matsubo.”

The problem with this story is that Rikyo, on the date given, was already dead. From one of Hideyoshi’s favorites, he had fallen into disgrace and was forced to commit suicide. Naya became rich overnight from the storage jars he had bought in Manila or Luzon so cheaply but sold at outrageous prices. Thus he came to be known as Ruson Sukezaemon.

The rather rough jars with a wide mouth and four ears are known today as “matsubo” or chatsubo” because they were used to store tea leaves. Jars from the Philippines were especially prized for their rarity and the way tea leaves were preserved and became sweeter inside them. These jars were then known as “rusontsubo” or “Luzon jars.”

The pilot episode of “Golden Days” is available on Youtube and while I don’t understand Nihongo, I can imagine the adventure and romance it generated about ancient times. A statue of Ruson Sukezaemon was erected in Sakai, a reminder today of what some people would call globalization. But some scholars now question the story and even the existence of Ruson Sukezaemon.

Yet the story of the jars from Luzon are supported by Western sources like the “Sucesos de las islas Filipinas” (1609) by Antonio de Morga; and by a contemporary travel account by the Italian Francesco Carletti, which was published much later in 1701. These two authors couldn’t understand why old Chinese storage jars, so common in the Philippines, could command such high prices in Hideyoshi’s Japan.

In his letters, the Franciscan San Pedro Bautista, who was sent from his convent in present-day San Juan del Monte in Quezon City as the Spanish envoy to Japan by Governor Gomez Perez Dasmariñas, asked that these jars be sourced in Manila and sent to Japan as presents for Hideyoshi and other VIPs. The many similar jars that remained in the Philippines and did not become “rusontsubo” are not worth as much as the fully documented ones in Japan today.

My research on rusontsubo and the stories around them continues because I want to understand what made them so special and why the demand for them waned.

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Comments are welcome at [email protected]

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TAGS: Cinema, drama series, Japanese broadcasting company NHK, TV
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