Goryo Hamaguchi: Earthquakes, Modern Medicine and Yamasa Soy Sauce

There was a fairly strong earthquake in the Tokyo/Kanto region and along the coast to the south yesterday (May 5th, 2014). It was a holiday in Japan so there wasn’t as much disruption as there would have been on a regular Monday, but it was a reminder that another Big One may come sooner or later. It’s just a fact of life in Japan.

I happened to be re-reading this older article about soy sauce when I heard about the earthquake…which reminded me of someone who is associated with both. His name was Goryo Hamaguchi (濱口梧陵), and he was quite a remarkable man. I thought you might like to hear about him, since he’s barely known at all outside Japan.

goryo_hamaguchi.jpg

The 7th head of the Yamasa Soy Sauce company

Goryo Hamaguchi was born in 1825 in Kishuu, current day Wakayama prefecture, in the waning days of the Edo period. He was the son of one of the relatives of a big soy sauce merchant, which had been in business since 1645. He was subsequently adopted by the merchant to become the heir, and he eventually become the 7th owner and head of the company that eventually became Yamasa Corporation, one of the leading manufacturers of soy sauce to this day. They are still privately owned, making it one of the oldest companies in Japan under the same management in Japan and the world (the current CEO is Michio Hamaguchi, from the same family). That alone is a pretty remarkable thing, even though very old companies are much more common in Japan than in almost any other country. (One of the ways family businesses keep their companies going is to adopt a capable heir, as in Goryo’s case.) But of Goryo was more than just a soy sauce merchant.

The origin of the Burning of the Rice Field legend

Around the end of the 19th century, a popular legend sprung up about an old man, and elder in his village, who saw a huge tide coming in, and burned his freshly cut rice to warn the villages of the coming tsunami. (You can read the legend here). This legend was popularized outside of Japan be the Lafcadio Hearn, who called it a story about a Living God. It’s a tale that emphasizes the importance of warning systems when earthquakes hit, and has been re-told in textbooks and such in Japan.

The legend based on an actual event in Goryo’s life, although a lot of details differ. There was indeed an earthquake and Tsunami in the area where Goryo lived in 1854. He was just 35 then, not an old man, and he didn’t live on a mountain above the village, he lived in town. He did set his rice fields on fire, but they weren’t freshly cut with the rice still on them - they were just straw. But it did serve to warn the people in the area. But what he did after the earthquake was in many ways even better than the warning fires. He spent a lot of his own money - 4665 ryo or gold coins, which was a huge sum at the time (a family of four could live comfortably on 10 ryo a year) to make the area more able to withstand earthquakes and tsunami. One of the things he financed was a big levee. In 1946, 88 years after it was built, another large earthquake hit the area, but the levee was able to hold back the tsunami waves. In his home area, the spirit of Goryo Hamaguchi is honored by a shrine at the levee. (It’s quite common in Shinto for the spirits of great people to be worshipped after life as kind of demi-gods.)

Contributing to modern medicine

Goryo was a very forward thinking man. He was one of the earliest proponents of opening the country to foreign trade after Commodore Matthew Perry’s fleet arrived, and he really wanted to study abroad for a while, although his request was denied the the Edo shogunate. He was also interested in western medicine, having befriended some prominent Rangaku or western scholars and doctors of the time. He contributed his considerable personal wealth in two areas: cholera prevention, and spreading the use of smallpox vaccinations. He built a hospital and a cholera treatment center in his home town of Choshi, and also backed the building and operations of the Western Smallpox Vaccination Center in Tokyo (now the Tokyo University School of Medicine), headed by Kansai Seki. He even financed the publication of the first full-fledged Western medical reference in Japan.

There’s a fictionalized account of this phase of his life in the great scifi-fantasy-medical drama manga and live-action miniseries Jin (仁). In the manga he’s portrayed as a no-nonsense businessman who does not suffer fools lightly, and doesn’t just hand out money because people ask for it, but is willing to back what he sees as progress in medicine even if he doesn’t see any immediate profit from it. If all business leaders were like him, the world would be a much better place…

Goryo Hamaguchi died in 1885 at the age of 66, after an eventful life that included, on top of everything else, stints in both local and notional government in the new Meiji period (he was even a Cabinet minister for a short time). He finally fulfilled his wish to travel to the west, but he passed away in New York of an illness. At least he did manage to travel overseas finally.

So whenever you see a bottle of Yamasa soy sauce, you may want to give a little nod to Goryo Hamaguchi, who used the wealth the soy sauce brought to his family to improve the lives of others. I guess that the fact that Yamasa Corporation is involved in the biochemical industry as well as soy sauce may be his legacy.

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Matt | 7 May, 2014 - 13:48

Re: Goryo Hamaguchi: Earthquakes, Modern Medicine and ...

Very interesting article. I had not heard about Hamaguchi before, nor have I seen the Yamasa soy sauce. I will look for it because I've been curious about whether there are differences in the tastes of various brands. Thank you!

Ann Kennedy | 7 May, 2014 - 14:21

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