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Remembering Texas and the Battle of the Alamo in Japan

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Remembering Texas and the Battle of the Alamo in Japan

How a poem by a Japanese scholar further glorified the most mythologized event in the history of Texas.

Remembering Texas and the Battle of the Alamo in Japan

The Fall of the Alamo (1903) by Robert Jenkins Onderdonk, depicts Davy Crockett wielding his rifle as a club against Mexican troops who have breached the walls of the mission.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Robert Jenkins Onderdonk

In the Alamo Convent Courtyard, a few meters away from the sand colored stone structure known as the Long Barrack, where in the early morning hours of March 6, 1836 some of the last Alamo defenders succumbed to the pre-dawn Mexican onslaught, stands a small stone monument, a poem in classical Chinese inscribed on it.

The poem, composed in September 1914 by Shiga Shigetaka—a Japanese scholar, world traveler, popular writer, and eminent geographer —vividly describes the thirteen days of the siege and subsequent battle over the Alamo Mission, located in San Antonio, Texas. It begins:

One hundred fifty are besieged by five thousand;
Not only the provisions but the ammunition is all gone.
Thirty-two men hear the news and hurry to the scene.
The heavy strokes of their sabers lead them into the fortress, through the ranks of the enemy to see
The commander of the fortress wet with blood,
And his men reeling against the walls with exhaustion but with swords in hand.

The Battle of the Alamo is the most momentous event of the Texas Revolution. It took place on March 6, 1836, when a Mexican Army commanded by then Mexican-president, General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, took the Alamo Mission by storm killing all of its defenders (estimated between 182 to 257 strong), including their commanding officers William B. Travis and James Bowie, as well as the American folk hero and politician, David Crockett. Prior to the battle the Mexican troops had hoisted a blood-red flag signifying no quarter.

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Credit: Phillip Sulke

A few weeks later an army, consisting of U.S. volunteers and Texans defeated the Mexicans during the Battle of San Jacinto with the battle cries of “Remember the Alamo!” and “Remember Goliad” (the site of another massacre of Americans and Texans by the Mexican Army) winning Texas its independence.

Shigetaka, in his poem, draws parallels between the Battle of Nagashino, which took place in Mikawa province in central Japan in 1575, and the Battle of Suiyang during the rule of the Tang Dynasty of China in 757 with the fight of the Alamo in 1836. (The granite monument on which the poem is inscribed was quarried near Nagashino.)

One episode during the Battle of Nagashino in particular offered striking parallels to the Alamo for Shigetaka.  Prior to the cataclysmic  clash in June 1575, a small 500-men strong garrison withstood sustained assaults of a force of several thousand soldiers of the Takeda clan on Nagashino Castle.

During the siege, a samurai named Torii Suneemon snuck out of the castle to alert the forces under Oda Nobunaga and Tokugawa Ieyasu to come to the rescue of the small garrison. Trying to get back into the castle he was captured by the Takeda, who offered to spare his life if he would shout to his comrades-in-arms that no relief force was on its way advising them to capitulate.

However, Torii Suneemon, defying his captors, shouted that the Oda-Tokugawa combined army was on its way and help coming, for which he was subsequently put to death. Nobunaga and Tokugawa succeeded in lifting the siege and won the ensuing battle.  The Alamo’s fearless Samurai came from the southern United States:

Now comes the dauntless South Carolinian,
Knowing that if he does not answer duty’s call, disgrace and shame will be his.
Returning he rides into the siege on a white charger,
Salutes the besieged with a smile, and says, “We die together.”

The “dauntless” South Carolinian was James Butler Bonham, a 29-year old former lawyer turned officer and courier, who once caned an opposing lawyer for insulting his female client, and delivered the message to the Alamo defenders that help was forthcoming. Shiga Shigetaka called Torii Suneemon “the Bonham of Japan” in the inscription on the monument. (Shigetaka wrongfully believed that Bonham delivered the message to the Alamo that no help was coming.) In Shigetaka’s eyes the Battle of the Alamo showed that East and West ostensibly shared at least one common custom:

The custom of the West does not necessarily condemn surrender.
Why? We have never heard of a commander destroyed,
But here in the state of Texas, we see one (Travis).
In spirit there is not a distinction between East and West.

The 1830s were the heydays of the romantic rediscovery of the Middle Ages brought about by the works of Lord Byron and Sir Walter Scott. William Travis, the Alamo’s valiant commander, in one winter alone, read three of Scott’s novels. Travis—perhaps the person most responsible for creating the Alamo legend—emulated Scott’s heroes (e.g., Rob Roy), as can best be seen in his writing, most famously in his “Victory or Death” letter where “in the name of liberty” he vowed to “never surrender or retreat.”

During Shigetaka’s lifetime, the chivalrous Age of the Samurai had abruptly come to an end, yet its spirit lingered on for decades.  Seeing that the highly romanticized ideals of the Middle Ages stirred the actions of Travis and other Alamo defenders, the Japanese professor’s poem is a testament to these ancient ideals in both countries.

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Credit: Phillip Sulke

Shigetaka grew up during the Meiji Restoration in Japan, a time of sweeping social upheaval when many Japanese felt that Western influences would supplant their country’s traditional culture. Perhaps then, he saw the battle as an opportunity to dispel some of the fears held by the Japanese about the West by illustrating that traditional (i.e. heroic or warrior) culture was comparable in both the United States and Japan.

The Japanese scholar’s effort to mythologize the Battle of the Alamo was thus on the one hand to emphasize a commonality of culture, and on the other hand a response to the dawn of Japanese Modernity.

In his book Remembering the Alamo: Memory, Modernity & the Master Symbol, Richard Flores makes a similar argument about the role of the Alamo in the history of Texas:

[T]he cultural memory of the Alamo is both produced and invoked as a means of sustaining the deep social changes associated with the transition to modernity in Texas. As such the cultural memory of the Alamo provides semantic justification for slotting Mexicans and Anglos into an emerging social order brought forth by the material and ideological forces that gripped Texas between 1880 and 1920.

Emphasizing the heroism of white Anglo-Texans and their dedication to ideals of freedom (and disregarding the contribution of Mexicans fighting for Texas in the 1830s) thus served to comfort Anglo-Texans in their struggles with Modernity, when they, like the Japanese during the Meiji Restoration, feared to lose their traditional identities amidst the social changes that were occurring in Texas during that time.

It comes then as no surprise that the Alamo, unlike other similar sites in American history, such as Gettysburg, Yorktown, or Pearl Harbor, did not immediately rise to prominence in public history after the battle in 1836. (Throughout the entire 19th century there were no public commemorations to mark the battle’s anniversary on March 6.)

Only in the early 20th century did it become, according to a brochure distributed at the Alamo in 2015, “hallowed ground and the Shrine of Texas Liberty,” a place “where men made the ultimate sacrifice for freedom.”

Of course, this hyperbolic statement does not hold up to close historical scrutiny. There is, for example, good historical evidence that the men of the Alamo did not expect to die during the siege. Many of the most celebrated stories, such as the drawing a line in the sand by William Travis, were almost certainly a fabrication that occurred a few decades after the battle.

Also, an unknown number of defenders actually tried to escape during the battle and were cut down by Mexican cavalry, undermining the fight over flight legend. There is also not a single piece of historical evidence that Davey Crockett died defending the Alamo and ample evidence that he, and a number of Alamo defenders, were executed by the Mexicans after the battle and after they had surrendered.

Furthermore, it goes without saying that the freedom for which the Alamo defenders “made the ultimate sacrifice” did not extend to black slaves. Mexico abolished slavery in Texas in 1830, which was partially responsible for the insurrection of the Anglo-Texans against the Mexican government since they had imported their slaves from the United States.

In fact, Solomon Northup and his fellow slaves were praying for a Mexican victory in the Mexican-American War of 1847—fought to incorporate Texas into the Union of the United States of America—as Northup describes in in his haunting memoir Twelve Years a Slave, since it would free them of their chains. (Santa Ana, the victor of the Battle of the Alamo, commanded the Mexican Army of 1847.) Even more telling, the Alamo Shrine today continues to fly the “The Stars and Bars” of the Confederate States of America, hardly a symbol of American liberty in 2015.

Historical accuracy, however, was of secondary importance to Shigetaka in his quest for a symbol that transcends geographical boundaries and could be used to emphasize latent transnational traits.  He apparently heeded the advice of Maxwell Scott in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”


Credit: Phillip Sulke

Shigetaka might have first heard about the Battle of Alamo during his studies at the Sapporo Agricultural College in Japan, which in the 1870s was run by an American and U.S. Civil War veteran, William S. Clarke, from Massachusetts, who, among other subjects, taught a course on military history. Nevertheless, what is clear is that the idea for the monument came to him 1912 while touring the West Coast of the United States when he was appalled by the Anti-Japanese attitudes there.

During a lecture in 1914 in the United States he explained that he wanted to present the monument to the city of San Antonio in recognition of “the common values of courage and self-sacrifice for a worthy cause that both Texans and Japanese admired. The monument honored heroes of both the Alamo and of Nagashino.”

Shigetaka urged the Japanese living in the United States to overcome anti-Japanese sentiments by developing a respect for American culture including its historical symbols such as the Alamo Mission, which he believed was a first step towards assimilation.

The Alamo remains an ambiguous symbol both of American combativeness and freedom and a symbol of division and of a refusal of a people to assimilate, which, given that it is a site of a violent battle in a war of independence, should not be surprising. This apparent irony, however, seemed to have escaped Shigetaka in 1914.