Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Bakumatsu in Second Life -- sharing an interest in history

Looking out into the back garden at the House of Yagi Gennojo in Kyoto Bakumatsu--a sim representing aspects of life and politics in Japan's capital city during the 1860s--a time of great change and dramatic conflict.

The other day, I was casting around for something new to go see in terms of history-related builds in SL, and my friend Ernst Osterham asked if had seen the sims representing Nagasaki and Kyoto in the 1860s. I admitted I had not, and at the first opportunity, popped over to see what is best described as the "Bakumatsu" build: three adjoining historically-themed sims dealing with the end of Japan's Shogunate era.

I am indebted to Ernst for the suggestion to visit this intriguing and well-constructed effort.

You know, much of what keeps me interested in Second Life is what various residents do in terms of exploring stories that are important to them. The ability to interpret or recreate historical environments fosters a delightful range of learning opportunities and various "aha" moments.

Some of those learning opportunities are entirely self directed, as in situations where a concept (like the Deadwood sim) and/or an activity (like Western frontier roleplay) draws you in and encourages you to learn new things. I honestly knew damned little about the American Western frontier and things like gold mining before I started playing in the Deadwood sim. Now mind you, the build and the roleplay didn't necessarily teach me these things. What it did do was to inspire me to study and learn about a range of new subjects, and to immerse myself in stories from a part of America's past that had only marginally interested me before.

Ah, but a slightly different kind of learning took place for me in the Bakumatsu sims. This build is literally an example of people from a background and heritage very different from my own, transporting me into a world of which I had only superficial knowledge from college courses I took almost 35 years ago. According the Bakumatsu sims manager Ryomo Sautereau (who is also one of the builders) this project was the result of collaboration among a group of SL residents from Japan who wanted to share a part of their history. They are not associated with a museum or university, but are simply a collection of Japanese history enthusiasts who have a fascination for this period known as the "Bakumatsu," which encompasses the years from 1853, when Commodore Perry's US Navy fleet of "black ships" pressured the Japanese to open their nation to trade with the western nations, to 1868, when the control of Japan by the Tokugawa Shoguns ended with the Meiji Restoration.

As I looked into this story (and some of my old Asian history studies came back to me), I could see why these folks are so intrigued by this time period: it was an era of great change for Japan not just politically, but also in terms of society and technology and religion. It was an era in which the Japanese people could see aspects of their ancient traditional way of life juxtaposed with the modern world, and they had to figure out how to reconcile those two realities. It's fun, exciting, and meaningful stuff.

Ryoma explained to me that the three sims actually have been around for some time: Kyoto Bakumatsu and Nagasaki Bakumatsu were built 3 years ago, and Kyoto Sanjo opened about a year later. A number of highly skilled builders were involved in this project--among those whose work you will see here are Senri Oh, Jeter Jun, Kuroe2 Noel, D15 Koba, Hiroe Jewell, and Ryoma. There are others as well, and I intend no slight to them and their work by not listing them all (and I apologize to those I missed in my cursory note taking), but a lot of people have contributed here. The remarkable thing about it is that even with all these different folks crafting the build, it has an astonishingly consistent feel to it. The scale, the authentic feel (even in the vendor areas), and the overall look works really well.

A clean and authentic feeling streetscape.

The way that it is structured is that the three sims generally have historical recreations arranged around their outer edges, while the central areas are commercial. In these center sections, you will find numerous blocks of historically-styled buildings that can be rented for vendor and social spaces. These include stores selling garments, skins, furnishings, weapons, etc., and while the products and environments all seem to express Asian traditions and generally utilize an Asian design vocabulary. You can also find social and cultural venues throughout the sims, such as a recreated tea house and a place showing machinima.

Ryoma tells me that not all the merchants are Japanese--many come from America and Europe. The interiors of the commercial spaces do not have to be historically authentic--most of the stores look like standard SL retail operations with the usual vendomatics and signage--but the exteriors generally have been kept clean and close to the period, so the overall effect of the streetscapes does not clash with the historical elements of the sims.

And I tell you what, boys and girls, the historical environments in these three sims are excellent--both in how they look and feel, and how they were chosen to tell a particular aspect of the story of this era.

For example, I started in the Nagasaki sim and the first thing I noticed was a massive recreation of mid-19th century steam and sail-powered sloop of war. And I thought, "oh..that must be one of Commodore Perry's warships from 1853." Nope. Not at all--it is a representation of the Kanrin Maru, Japans first screw driven naval vessel (that means it's moved through the water by a propeller, not side-wheels), which was built in a Dutch shipyard in 1858. It's an important artifact as it highlighted the reality that only five years after the "black ships " first arrived, the Japanese themselves were adopting the latest modern technology. The Kanrin Maru is also significant as it carried the first Japanese diplomats to the US. The build itself, crafted by Kuroe2 Noel, is gorgeously done. The hull has clean lines, the masts are fully rigged, and overall the ship is properly proportioned.

The Kanrin Maru, tied up at the dock in Nagasaki Bakumatsu

The ship is moored at a dock, not far from both traditional Japanese style structures and a sort of "foreign quarter" that includes a recreation of the Oura Roman Catholic Church, which was built in 1864-65 in Nagasaki. The real life version of this structure still stands today, and is the oldest existing Christian church building in Japan.

From there I wandered into the commercial area, passing numerous shops--mostly fully rented, it seemed, and without realizing it I passed into the Kyoto Bakumatsu sim. While Nagasaki was a key sea port and trading center in the 1850s and 1860s (and a nexus for interaction with the West), Kyoto was the old capital city of imperial Japan until the Meiji restoration in 1868 (when the capital was moved to Edo--now Tokyo). Consequently, Kyto was a center of intrigue and conflict between the supporters of the old Tokugawa Shogunate system of government, and the socio-political forces that wished to return real control of the country to the Emperor.

This makes for some real interesting stories--ronin serving as special police forces, assassinations, torture, sword fights, the whole deal. Great stuff! In a lot of ways, this era of Japanese history is like a combination of our American Civil War, the Wild West, and the Condottieri wars of Renaissance Italy all rolled together.

At the Mibu Dera Temple in Kyoto Bakumatsu

Historical recreations representing this story include the Mibu Dera temple (build by D15 Koba), a Buddhist shrine that was erected in Kyoto around 991 AD, and which in the 1860's had connections to the "Shinsemgumi," a "special police force" made up of ronin who worked for the cause of the Shogunate. Nearby to the temple is a damn fine representation of the house of Yagi Gennojo, which served as the headquarters of the Shinsengumi, and where two important members of the group were assassinated in 1863 (and for whom there is a memorial at the Mibu Dera temple). This recreation of the house of Yagi Gennojo was also built by D15 Koba, using some fantastic texturing. It very closely follows the exact design of the rl structure...and as for its overall feel, it stands head and shoulders above most other recreated historical houses in SL, such as the sterile and lifeless Frank Lloyd Wright builds.

Wonderful texturing and a great overall sense of place at the Yagi Gennojo house.

Another really well done historical recreation is featured in the adjoining Kyoto Sanjo sim. This is a representation of the Ikedaya Inn, built by Jeter Jun. It was the site of the "Ikedaya incident" in 1864, in which the Shinsegumi conducted a raid to arrest a group of pro-imperial ronin who may have been planning to make trouble. A serious little battle broke out, and although the actual impact of the incident is debated, it certainly added to the reputation of the Shinsengumi as a force to be reckoned with.

I asked Ryoma what are his favorite parts of the Bakumatsu build, and he told me really liked the temple because of his fascination with story of the Shinsengumi, but he was particularly fond of the Ikedaya Inn recreation because the actual structure no longer exists. Therefore, as he put it, "There is nothing of it any longer in rl--only in Second Life can you get the feel of this building that existed long ago."

Getting a feeling for a place that no longer exists--inside the Ikedaya Inn.

A big part of what the folks who built the Bakumatsu sims wanted to achieve was to share their history with other people who might not know these stories. Just as all the renters are not Japanese, Ryoma told me the same holds true for their visitors. And in fact, when I was there I noted that there were interpretive signs at all of the numerous historical recreations, both in English and Japanese.

To be honest, the English translations of the Japanese text were not always clear. But they provided enough clues, key words and names that I could then use Google to clarify the story of each structure and discover more information to enhance my understanding. So in a way, it actually became another self-directed learning exercise. I had a lot of fun exploring, and I really appreciate Ryoma Sautereau taking the time to answer my questions to help me better understand what he and his associates were trying to communicate here.

And oh, last question I asked him was if anyone ever rp'ed in these sims. He replied, "not yet."

To visit--which I highly recommend--you can enter the Nagasaki sim at:

To go directly to the Kyoto Sanjo sim:

And to go directly to the Kyoto Bakumatsu sim (this will put you in front of the teahouse):


  1. I always learn something from your posts, no more so than this one, as it's a time and place I know almost nothing about.

    I'm pretty certain I've walked through those sims, as the names sound familiar and the pictures look very familiar, but I'll have to re-visit in light of your remarks.

  2. hey Rhia,

    Yeah, if you don't read Japanese or aren't familiar with the history, it takes some extra effort to really get engaged with this build and what they were trying to do. But I enjoyed the time I spent working on it and think it was really worth it. I also think its very cool how it ties into our own history.

    Plus, Ryoma seems like a really nice guy, and you know how I like to plug things that are made by the nice guys of this world.

  3. Dio, thank you for a(nother) great post highlighting a(nother) place I now *must* visit. I read a book a couple of years back you might be interested in - it was set at the same time and blends historical fact and genre-based fantasical action quite well: Cloud of Sparrows (

  4. Hey HB,

    Thanks for the suggestion. Yes, considering all the varied and dramatic aspects of the history of this era, I imagine it makes great fodder for historical fiction.

    It's interesting, this set of sims have been around for 2 to 3 years, but I was unaware of them until Ernst told me about them. Mind you we all know that I lead a pretty insular life in-world, but I did a search and I couldn't find any other reviews of this build. Maybe there were some when it first opened and they're taken down now...or maybe they're in Japanese. But, either way I certainly thought it deserved a bit of attention.

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