The Last Beer Samurai

There’s nothing like beer after a long journey. Witness the iconic, 19th century picture of Tommy, the last beer samurai.

In 1853 Commodore Matthew Perry cruised into Uraga with his powerful “black ships.” By 1860, Japan had assembled two delegations to visit America. The Kanrin Maru delegation has grabbed the historical spotlight for having carried such personages as Fukuzawa Yukichi. But bright-eyed Tommy was a part of a bakufu mission that preceded them on the USS Powhatan.

Tommy was born Kobanawa Narisama in 1843. In those days, last names were fluid and changed with whatever clan-house you were living in. Little Tommy eventually assumed the name Tateishi Onojirô. Tateishi Tokujurô was an uncle on his mother’s side and a Dutch interpreter for the bakufu. Tommy studied under him, hence the name. Hence the connections. There is compelling evidence that Tommy met Perry and his crew in Yokohama, during Perry’s second visit in 1854.

Tommy came of age in tumultuous times. He wasn’t like his stodgy elders. In America, the interpreter trainee quite simply bloomed. Newspapers indicate he was a stud. Handsome, with an “irrepressible personality,” he was the center of women’s attentions at official receptions and wrote love letters to them. The press nicknamed him Tommy. He became such a star that a German composer in Philadelphia wrote the “Tommy Polka” in honor of him.

Did Tommy get some good loving? Admit it, you hope he did. Alas, reporter Edward House’s (1836-1901) accounts are vague. Tommy spoke of “his earnest desire to discover a suitable wife” in the U.S. But when older women swarmed him, he was “generally taken with a fit of business.” House later reported that Tommy had become “the victim of a hopeless passion.” Hmmm.

What better way to celebrate youth and the changing times than with a photograph with his brother? Numerous pictures of Tommy remain, but nothing like this: fully attired samurai pouring each other a beer! And smiling! Nothing else like this remains in any of Japan’s photographic records. The exact date of the picture is unclear, but it was probably taken at a studio in Osaka years after his return.

Tommy lived out his long life as a family man in the service of the government, even spending two years in Hawaii after 1887. He died in 1917 in a quiet home by the sea. His legend, of course, lives on. Tommy Polka is now on YouTube, and the iconic picture was a label for some limited edition beer from the Yokohama Brewery. We are still waiting for the movie.








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