Keith and I have a routine on Sunday nights as we wind down to our day off on Monday. At 5:30, we watch a group of seven old men tell jokes; if it’s a good joke, they receive a zabuton cushion, or lose one of their cushions for telling a bad joke. At 6 there’s nothing on TV that interests us, so it’s good timing to eat dinner and clean up. At 7:30, a show about animals, and at 8 is the Taiga drama: the year-long drama which follows a Japanese historical figure throughout his or her life. These are lavish efforts by our national broadcaster which feature first-rate actors, beautiful costumes and sets, and dramatic swordfight choreography.
I have watched a number of these dramas now, and I think I have found a common thread. Each year without fail, the drama’s main character longs to build a better Japan. With pure motives, he or she fights (usually literally) for a world without war, in which everyone is equal and the people can live in peace. I suspect this theme reflects modern Japanese pacifistic sensibilities, rather than the actual motives of many powerful historical figures. But it’s easy to cheer for a plucky, altruistic protagonist, no matter which side of what conflict he or she is on. Last year’s villain may become this year’s hero.
Akechi Mitsuhide (1528-1582), hero of the 2020 Taiga drama, Kirin ga kuru (Kirin Is Coming) has played the villain’s role in many previous dramas. He is an intriguing figure: he appears to have been a devoted husband and father (his daughter grew up to become Lady Gracia Hosokawa, one of Japan’s most famous Christians), a loyal vassal, and a conscientious ruler (daimyo). Perhaps most importantly, he was willing to speak truth to power at great cost to himself. Why, then, did he betray Oda Nobunaga, his lord? No one knows for sure.
The titular kirin is a mythical beast, said to herald the coming of a great ruler and a world free from war. Several characters express their hope that Mitsuhide will be the one to summon the kirin and usher in the new era of peace, bringing an end to civil war lasting more than a century (the Warring States period, 1457-1615). Mitsuhide therefore spends his life searching for the one who will unite Japan; first he puts his trust in the last Ashikaga shogun, then assists Nobunaga in his rise to power, but both leaders are corrupted by power and lose their compassion for the common people. The shogun is forced into exile, and then Mitsuhide loses faith in Nobunaga, who can no longer hear wisdom from his faithful vassal. Will Mitsuhide summon the kirin? Who will save Japan?
The drama ends as Mitsuhide takes responsibility for his part in Nobunaga’s rise (and fall) and stages a successful but short-lived coup d'état in which Nobunaga loses his life. Mitsuhide then disappears, presumed dead, having entrusted the future of Japan to Tokugawa Ieyasu, who would later complete the unification of Japan. Mitsuhide’s mission has succeeded: the kirin, it seems, has come. The Tokugawa family ruled over two and a half centuries of peace (Edo period, 1603-1868)—but it was an uneasy, authoritarian sort of peace, which ended in another period of upheaval.
As I watched the last episode, I couldn’t help but think that Mitsuhide, like all other Taiga drama protagonists before him, was seeking the Kingdom of God without knowing the King, trying to bring in God’s kingdom by his own human hands, trying to end war by fighting endless wars. “Just one more battle, and we will have peace,” said the well-intentioned Mitsuhide. But there was no peace for Mitsuhide or for Japan—or for any of us who try to try to establish God’s kingdom without its King.
My tea ceremony teacher is also a fan of Taiga drama—last year’s drama in particular, since Mitsuhide was a fellow tea practitioner. We frequently discussed the drama during or after class. On one such occasion, I accidentally put the drama’s title in past tense, calling it Kirin ga kita (Kirin came), and she corrected me with a twinkle in her eye: “The drama isn’t over; the kirin hasn’t come yet.” That’s when I realized that my language miss had a theological twist. The metaphorical kirin came long before Mitsuhide or Nobunaga or the Tokugawa family, proclaiming the gospel of peace and the coming of our King.
The Kingdom of God is already here, but it doesn’t look like we expect it to look. “He has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty,” sang our King’s mother (Luke 1:52-53, ESV). I grieved for Japan, and I grieved for all of us in this world who try to find peace in the wrong places and make peace in the wrong ways. May we have the eyes to see our King in our midst as we wait for his Kingdom to come in all its fullness.
“A voice cries: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low… And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.’” (Isaiah 40:3-5, ESV)