Kanagawa: Ninomiya, an icon of learning and ethics

Photo by Taku Yaginuma / Special to The Yomiuri Shimbun
A mannequin at the Sontoku Memorial Museum in Odawara, Kanagawa Prefecture, depicts a stern-looking Ninomiya demanding an official open a granary to feed the people of the Odawara domain.

ODAWARA, Kanagawa — There are perhaps many for whom the name Ninomiya Sontoku, or Ninomiya Kinjiro as he’s more commonly known, conjures the image of a diligent boy reading a book as he walks to school, carrying a pile of firewood on his back.

Ninomiya (1787-1856) later became an agronomist in the late Edo period (1603-1867), who diligently worked to restore many devastated farming villages after a great famine. The Sontoku Memorial Hall, located in his birthplace of the Kayama district in Odawara, Kanagawa Prefecture, works to help make his many achievements known.

Losing his parents and farm in a flood at a young age, Ninomiya was taken in by his uncle and worked hard to both study and learn the ways of farm life. At the age of 24, he rebuilt his original home.

A mannequin of young Ninomiya studying in the dark. A lantern is draped with clothes to keep light from leaking out.
A mannequin of young Ninomiya studying in the dark. A lantern is draped with clothes to keep light from leaking out.

After organizing the troubled finances of the Hattori family, the Odawara clan’s chief retainer, Ninomiya’s highly sought skills earned him a commission from the daimyo of Odawara to aid in the restoration of the clan’s branch fiefdom in the Sakuramachi district of Shimotsuke, in what is now Tochigi Prefecture.

A strong believer of the ethics of “bundo” (cutting one’s coat according to one’s cloth) and “suijo” (saving extra resources for later use or giving them to others in need), Ninomiya educated his fellow villagers and helped bring about agricultural reform. Ninomiya’s agrarian rehabilitation plan, known as Hotoku Shiho (the Hotoku philosophy), eventually spread to other areas, helping villages there recover. Curator Asuka Sakai explains that the idea of Hotoku Shiho is to “think of what you can or should do, and leave any excess you have for someone else in trouble.”

The memorial hall showcases parts of Ninomiya’s life through the use of mannequins and panels. One mannequin depicts a young Ninomiya as he studies through the night at his uncle’s home. At that time of his life, he diligently worked repairing damaged rice fields, planting discarded seedlings for harvesting and cultivating a specific type of plant that was made into oil for lamps. His philosophy of small accumulations leading to great results — known as “sekishoidai” in Japanese — was born from such experiences.

There is also a re-creation depicting a time of famine in which Ninomiya, with a grimace, demands that a feudal officer open the granary in Odawara Castle to feed those who were starving.

Some of Ninomiya’s belongings are also on display, such as his 28-centimeter straw sandals. When thinking of Ninomiya, the image of a young boy is common. As an adult, however, he was said to have been 180 centimeters tall. The hall also exhibits a meticulous list, written by the man himself, of items he sold when selling his home in Odawara to move to Shimotsuke, such as “three buckets” and “five sticks of wood.”

Diligence, frugality, and everyday efforts — the teachings of Ninomiya remain relevant even in the present day.