Kaminoseki is a port-town and fishing town on the Inland Sea coast of Yamaguchi prefecture (formerly Suô province). It is situated across three islands and a small peninsula of "mainland" Honshu, and incorporates a number of formerly distinct villages, including that of Murotsu. A major regional harbor not only for local/regional traffic but even for foreign voyagers, Kaminoseki or areas immediately nearby appear in records as early as those written by ambassadors from Silla in the 8th century, recorded in the Man'yôshû, as well as records associated with Korean and Ryukyuan embassies to Edo in the 17th-19th century, and in diaries and journals of Western travelers such as Carl Peter Thunberg in the 1770s, and Robert Fortune in the 1860s.
Today, the town of Kaminoseki spans two large islands and a small portion of the Murotsu Peninsula, which juts out from the "mainland" of Honshû. It faces the Suô Channel to the west, and the Iyo Channel to the east.
Historically, prior to Kaminoseki coming to incorporate neighboring municipalities, Kaminoseki "proper" was but one of a number of villages on the island of Nagashima, along with the villages of Hetsu, Shiraida, Kamai, and Shidai. Murotsu, Kaminoseki's twin port and fishing village, sat on the tip of the Murotsu Peninsula, facing Kaminoseki across a narrow strait. The two are now linked by a bridge, allowing road access to the island of Nagashima. Iwaishima, located to the southwest, was also home to separate villages, and is now a part of the town of Kaminoseki.
In the 16th century, Kaminoseki was one of a number of major bases of the Murakami clan "pirate" navy. The Murakami maintained a castle in the area, and enjoyed authority from the Môri clan (the dominant clan in the region) to exact tolls and custom fees from ships entering or passing by the harbor. This castle was eventually demolished, and the Murakami's piratical activities outlawed in 1588, but the Murakami maintained sub-fiefs in some of the surrounding regions (namely Iwaishima and parts of Nagashima) into the Edo period. Meanwhile, the Môri, now based in Hagi (on the northwestern coast of Yamaguchi pref.), reallocated many of the sub-fiefs in 1625, bringing portions of Kaminoseki (including Murotsu and parts of Nagashima) along with much other territory in the domain, more directly under Môri control.
Along with ports at Hôfu (also known as Nakanoseki) and the more famous Shimonoseki, Kaminoseki was one of a number of maritime checkpoints, or sekisho, maintained by the han government. As such, it was home to a number of official facilities, including an official guesthouse (ochaya), expanded in 1643 to include not just lodging, dining space, and kitchens, but baths, entertainment space, storage space, and residences for the staff, spread out over an area roughly the size of a modern-day soccer field. This guesthouse served not only the lords of Chôshû as they made their way to and from Edo on their sankin kôtai (alternate attendance) journeys, but also a number of Kyushu daimyô making that journey, and Korean and Ryukyuan embassies. Meanwhile, Chôshû and Tsushima han officials accompanying the Korean embassies took up lodging in villagers' homes, often taking up the majority of the homes along the main streets of both Kaminoseki and Murotsu. The situation was similar when the Môri or other daimyô passed through on their sankin kôtai journeys.
The domain's local administrative office, or bansho, in the town was relocated in 1711 to a more prominent location which allowed officials to throw open the doors and look out over the waterfront, flanked by longbows and thus presenting an impressive visage as well to those looking up at them. The office was headed by members of the two samurai families resident in the town - the Hayashi and Yasumura - while the Odamura family dominated the position of village headman. At that time, in 1711, the population of the town is estimated at roughly 140 households, comprised of a total of less than one thousand people. The town was also home to three teahouses - the Edo-ya, Kaneko-ya, and one other - and an office overseeing the operations of the koshini-gata system of domain-commissioned warehouses, as well as roughly twelve ton'ya (private shipping agents) each of which specialized in the storage and shipment of particular goods from different provinces, and bore names such as Awa-ya, Kaga-ya, Higo-ya, and Nagasaki-ya. Each also maintained lodgings for kitamaebune ship captains & crews. In 1842, the three teahouses combined were home to fifty-four yûjo and five male clerks (tedai), and were responsible for as much as one-quarter of the revenues earned in the town. Much of the remaining portion was also connected to port activities, with agriculture comprising only a small portion of the town's economic activity.
Along with neighboring Murotsu and a handful of other Chôshû fishing villages, Kaminoseki also enjoyed a privileged position as a designated tateura port. Fishermen from these villages enjoyed certain privileges in fishing in certain waters, but were also obligated to offer certain forms of assistance to drifting ships or castaway sailors, as well as unloading or otherwise serving the daimyô's ships when they came to port.
Kaminoseki and its neighboring villages were fairly poor in terms of agricultural production, as was relatively typical of Inland Sea port-towns / fishing villages, and especially typical of Inland Sea islands. Yet, one demographic feature of Kaminoseki, Murotsu, and their immediate surroundings which was not so typical was an extraordinary proportion of landless people, including laborers known as môdo. At the peak in the 1840s, as many as 79% of the people in these towns were not landowners; meanwhile, the overall average for Chôshû domain was no higher than 33%.
Today, the town is perhaps most known for the nuclear power plant which was proposed to be constructed in the 1980s, and which as a result of local protests, has been delayed and delayed, essentially blocked, and today more than 30 years later still has not been built; many of those opposing the construction of the power plant argue that they do so, in part at least, in order to protect their hometown (furusato), though there are also many in favor of the power plant who argue similarly that its construction will help revive the town, which has seen considerable decline as have many rural areas in Japan in recent decades.
- Martin Dusinberre, Hard Times in the Hometown: A History of Community Survival in Modern Japan, University of Hawaii Press, 2012.
- Not to be confused with the more significant port of Murotsu in Hyôgo prefecture.
- Dusinberre, 22.
- Dusinberre, 20.
- Kami, naka, and shimo, meaning "above," "middle," and "below," or "upper," "middle," and "lower," respectively, with seki meaning "barrier" or "checkpoint."
- The Korean embassies in particular lodged at Kaminoseki eleven times, on every one of their embassy journeys to Japan, with the exception of the final mission, the 1811 mission, which only traveled to Tsushima, and not to mainland Japan. Dusinberre, 21-23.
- For example, in 1764, Chôshû and Tsushima officials accompanying the Korean missions occupied 36 out of 43 homes along the main street in Kaminoseki, as well as some number of homes in Murotsu. Dusinberre, 24-25.
- Dusinberre, 21.
- Dusinberre, 28.
- Dusinberre, 23.
- The relationship between the name of the ton'ya operation and the goods or provinces with which they dealt is unclear. Dusinberre, 27.
- Dusinberre, 31.
- Dusinberre, 21.
- Dusinberre, 29.
- Dusinberre, 7-9.