Japan: It has breathtaking natural beauty, futuristic cities steeped in tradition, and even a tiny island overrun with rabbits. What more could you ask for? Well, if you lived in the 17th century and you happened to be a feudal lord by the name of Tadatoshi Hosokawa, your personally manufactured wine and opium, developed using revolutionary techniques.
According to newly analyzed official documentation dating back to his reign, this daimyo, a powerful ruler based in Kumamoto at the time, was quite keen on said indulgences, but he relied on imports originally.
Winemaking had appeared in trade documents in Japan dating back to the 15th century, thanks largely to its introduction by traders and Christian missionaries from Western Europe, mainly Portugal. They made landfall on the western large island of Kyushu, where the Hosokawa’s resided.
Until 2016-17, it was thought that large-scale wine brewing in Japan itself didn’t begin until the 1870s, when the Industrial Revolution transformed Japan from a feudal country into an Imperial, capitalist world power under Emperor Meiji.
However, research by the Eisei Bunko Research Center of Kumamoto University recently revealed that wine was being produced by the Hosokawa family in Japan’s Kokura region as early as 1627, perhaps even earlier. Documents sent back and forth between the daimyo and his subjects revealed he had requested wine be made from wild grapes, and the products were to be sent to Edo – Japan’s capital city at the time, which would ultimately become Tokyo.
Considering that wine was sent to Edo for several years around that time, we can be sure that they were very confident in their winemaking abilities. Clearly, there was a demand for it too.
Taroemon Ueda, the chief winemaker at the time, and a pioneer in feudal Japan by all accounts, received a significant promotion for his efforts. It appears that he used black soybeans to promote fermentation, as opposed to another common technique of winemaking that involved soaking wild grapes in alcohol. He’d already been making sake (rice wine), but using grapes in this way was groundbreaking stuff.
New documentation found by the team of researchers has now revealed that it wasn’t just wine that Hosokawa requested be made – opium was a high priority too, according to a new press release. It seems that, back then, opium was being imported from Nagasaki (also on Kyushu) for medicinal purposes, but Ueda was ordered in 1629 to make his own opium products too.
“I am dissatisfied with the opium ordered (from Nagasaki) so it shall be returned,” a newly discovered 1628 note from Hosokawa said. Ueda set to work, producing just over a kilogram of opium by the following autumn.
The documents also contain some other curious tidbits of information. During the 1637-38 Shimabara Rebellion – an ultimately unsuccessful Catholic rebellion, supported by masterless samurai named rōnin – Hosokawa, on the side of the central government, was sending his premium wine to the battlefield for medicinal purposes.
Sadly, though, his winemaking days weren’t to last. The failure of the rebels led to over two centuries of Japanese isolationism and the outlawing of Catholicism. As wine was associated with conversion rituals to Christianity, it was also prohibited.