[Tiger Tale Star and Kochi Castle]

The Tiger Tail Star

Matasaburou and Comet C/1664 W1

By Steve Renshaw and Saori Ihara

January, 1996

We would like to thank Keiichiro Okamura Sensei (whose drawing appears above). He was first to "discover" Matasaburou's diary and bring it to light through private publication in Japanese. He has graciously allowed us to use his copies of Matasaburou's diary. His insight is keen, and our conversations with him have been a joy. Also thanks to Brian Marsden and Dan Green for information regarding comets both "seen" and "unseen" in the 17th century.
In the late 17th century, a Kochi resident whose childhood name was Matasaburou kept a diary of his life in the early Edo era. Found in the Archives of Kochi Prefecture by amateur astronomer Keiichiro Okamura, portions were first published privately in Japanese in 1989. Unfortunately, only the portions of the diary containing writings of Katsurai Soan (Matasaburou's adult name) as a child have survived to the present day. However, at the age of 12, the young Matasaburou observed and made drawings of Comet C/1664 W1, which he came to label "The Tiger Tail Star", and these diary entries have been preserved for us.

Part 1: December 16-19, 1664

It is the winter of 1664. Isaac Newton is a 22 year old student at Cambridge, and Halley's famous visit to the eminent scientist is some 20 years in the future. Christopher Wren and John Wallis, among others, are advancing theories about the movement of comets based on assumptions of straight lines and constant speeds. Sometime in December, people in the early morning hours observe a comet in the low southeastern sky. Hevelius will make drawings. Confusion appears to reign in Europe with regard to the understanding of such "visitors", and the men of the Royal Society will use this comet to "test" their theories.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world in Japan, the Edo era is fully entrenched. Memories of the seminal event at the dawn of this era, the burning of Osaka Castle in 1615, are still vivid in the minds of older residents of Tosa (modern Kochi), a small town on the southern coast of Shikoku Island. Now, rumors are about that another evil omen, a brush star, is in the sky. A 12 year old boy named Matasaburou has been keeping a diary of daily life in Tosa, and his interest in piqued by the talk in town...

December 16, 1664 [October 29 in the lunar calendar]. When I got up earlier this morning, Choukurou [a Tosa hair stylist] came to our house and said that there was a "Houki Boshi" [brush star, hereafter comet] in the sky from 2 to 6 AM. He said Governor Tadayoshi watched it too. People in town were saying that "bassa" [the flow of a woman's hair as she loosens and lets it fall] was in the sky from 2 to 6 this morning. Some people are saying that 13 years ago, after the Siege of Osaka, there was a comet. Some people say this is right, and some people say this is wrong. Other people are saying that there was a comet the day before the Siege of Osaka Castle, and people also say there was a star like this at the time of the Shimabara conflicts [riots by farmers in the early part of the Edo era, around 1637-38].

Later entries show the young Matasaburou to be very observant and inquisitive; he wonders about the accuracy of what his elders are telling him. Looking at records of comets at the time indicates that he was probably given a mix of fact and lore. The phrase "13 years ago, after the Siege of Osaka" can in translation mean either 13 years after the siege or 13 years ago in the period after the siege. In the first meaning, the year would be around 1628; in the second, the year would be 1651. The night before the Siege of Osaka Castle would have had to have been in the early summer of 1615.

There are no reliable reports of a comet being sighted in 1628. However, there is a comet reported for the year 1652 which would be close to "13 years ago" from the 1664 comet. A brief and obscure record of a comet being sighted in China in the late summer of 1615 exists; however, this would not seem to match the "day before the Siege". This is not to say that there was no comet, merely that there is no record other than the "memory" of Kochi residents. The closest recorded comet to the Shimabara conflicts is one in late 1639. Of course, at this time, comets were seen as "omens of evil", and the residents of old Kochi may have either related uncorrelated events or made up celestial objects to fit events they saw as bad.

[Page from Matasaburou Diary]

Page from December 16, 1664 Diary

December 16 (continued) ...The other day, someone went to Sanuki [modern Kagawa in northeastern Shikoku] to visit the Konpira Temple [still in existence in modern Kotohira Town]. He said he saw it [the comet] on November 26 and wondered if there was a star (sic) in Tosa [Kochi] as well. When the governor heard this, he told his servant to wake him up at 2 in the morning. On the 16th, the governor saw it, and this started the rumor that there was "bassa" in the sky...

Tonight, I went over to Hisabe's house. Six people were there including me. We began to talk about the comet, and then we decided to watch it all night and not go to sleep. Hikozaemon's servant Nanahei told us that when he came by to get his pay at 10 o'clock tonight, he saw a fireball. He said everyone else in town saw it too.

After awhile, I asked Nanahei to check outside and see whether or not there was a comet. He ran back into the house and said that there was a comet faintly visible from the ESE to the NW. So I went over to Hikozaemon's backyard, and I saw that it was faintly visible. As I watched it, it became brighter and brighter.

I woke grandma and Choutarou and Mr. Kakubee and showed the comet to them. Everybody was so surprised. I was too scared to watch it by myself. This is what I saw...

[Mata First Drawing]

Close-up of Matasaburou's First Drawing

The caption under the little "box" to the right of the comet reads: "By the way, this is Tosa Governor Tadayoshi's castle". To understand Matasaburou's drawings, we must realize: (1) the limits of scientific knowledge at the time, (2) the prominent view in both China and Japan then that events in heaven and earth are not separate, (3) the comet is drawn by a curious but somewhat perplexed 12 year old boy, and (4) this 12 year old boy is making every effort to be accurate.

In all of Matasaburou's drawings, North is at the bottom, South is at the top, West is to the right, and East is to the left. The comet traverses the southern sky; Matasaburou is looking south and trying to accurately depict "where" the comet is. Thus, his drawings are more of an attempt at an "engineered" accuracy rather than an aesthetic "picture". Seeing the situation through his eyes, he is in a sense trying to place a grid of the heavens on his drawing paper. So when he sees the head of the comet in the southeast, he draws the head in the upper left corner. When he sees the tail extending toward the northwest, he draws the tail in the direction of the lower right. Too, at this time, the heavens have corners as does the earth, and the extent of the heavens is not much more than the geographical extent of what the young Matasaburou knows as his geographical area on earth. Kochi Castle was (and is) west of the little suburb where Matasaburou lived, so it was quite natural for him to place it in the right hand side of his drawing.

At this time, the comet was in the constellation Corvus (see Skymap projections) . At 2 o'clock in the morning of the 16th, the comet was about 10 degrees above the horizon in the southeast. By 6 o'clock, it had moved to about 35 degrees above the horizon just to the west of the zenith. Assuming an ion tail, if we were to draw it today as we would envision it in a direct photograph, we would draw the head pointing to the lower left of our paper and the tail extending toward the upper right. Indeed, this is how Hevelius envisioned it.

December 16 (continued) ...The star's width is about 5 sun [1 sun=3.03cm]. The comet is not as bright as other stars. Other stars' lights are much brighter. This [line pointing to the tale] is white. [line pointing to the nucleus] bright like a star, and the point is white and faint. The length is about 2 to 2 1/2 ken [1 ken=1.82m]. I could see many stars around the comet. By the way, the dots around the star are fixed stars.

Actually, Governor Tadayoshi's castle is to the north of the star as you can see in my drawing. It [the "star", comet] curved to the South and moved to the top of the heavens and then went West.

The comet disappeared around 6 o'clock. The tail got a bit shorter, though the light was strong. If we light fires to see stars, then we just can't see them. If we extinguish fires, the comet gets longer and longer and brighter and brighter.

We cannot help but smile at the way the young Matasaburou tries to estimate the width and length of the comet using common measures. Even if we take his estimates as a ratio, his assessment of the comet's length is no doubt exaggerated. Matasaburou's reference to lighting "fires to see stars" is also both charming and humorous. Okamura (1995) mentions that it was a common perception of people at this time that if they lit torches, they could somehow see celestial omens more clearly. Matasaburou's observation and comments about light pollution show the young boy's objective sense about a concept that many modern city planners fail to realize to this day.

[Mata 2]

Drawing of Spica (probable) and the Comet

December 16 (continued) ...Here is a drawing [A above] I made from what a person said he saw. There are people who said the comet was exactly like this, and there are people who said that there was a star to the ESE and that star was about as big as 5 sun. Some said it was like this [B], and some said it was like this [C].

If we look at the position of the "star" in Matasaburou's drawings and remember the way he is estimating direction, this star is probably Spica (see Skymap projection for 6:00 AM sighting on December 16). Looking to the "left" of the comet, this would probably have been the brightest object visible to Kochi residents. It would indeed have been to the south of East and at about the same height as the comet.

It is obvious that townspeople are taking notice of the comet. Many may be looking at the skies for the first time (or the first time in many years). Spica is beautiful but not an unusual object. As later diary entries indicate, heightened fears seem to influence much of what people "see".

December 17 [October 30 in the lunar calendar]. I got up early this morning. When I got back from grandmother's house, I ate breakfast. I went to see Dr. Jian and told him about some of the details of the comet that I saw. Dr. Jian was amazed and said that I should keep going out at night to watch the comet.

People say that the comet this time is further east from the SE, because the comet at the Siege of Osaka Castle was quite like this comet but was further south from the WNW and further north from the corner of the SE. Dr. Jian also told me that the appearance of comets is a sign of evil. Something bad can happen like the emperor getting sick, or something bad could happen to the governor's health, or the land [feudal domain] could be changed.

December 19 [November 2 in the lunar calendar]. Today, there was heavy rain. The sky was dark and there was a lot of lightning. It was stormy, and there weren't many fish in the ocean. This morning, I got up early and fed my bird [bush warbler] and did my homework. Today, I am going to Mr. Jinzaemon's fan shop. I stayed up till after 1 o'clock in the morning and then went to bed. Then I woke up and watched the comet again [probably about 4:30 A.M.]. It was not raining then, and I could see Orihime [Vega, see The Separation of Orihime and Kengyuu]. The comet appeared to peek in and out of the clouds.

[Mata 3] I could see this comet near the South [in Hydra at this time]. The last time I saw it [indicating nucleus], it was white, but this time it is bright. The last time the tail was about 2 1/2 ken, but this time it's about 1 ken.


Part 2: December 21-31, 1664

Part 3: January 3 - February 6, 1665

Please send comments to

Steven L. Renshaw

Return to Astronomy in Japan Home Page