Samurai and such
Japan’s traditional warriors - the samurai and the ninja - are among the most popular features abroad, among foreign audiences, of Japanese historical culture. Some of my nephews asked me, “Who were the samurai?” At first, I thought, “Wow! What a great teaching opportunity.” Most of my family long ago stopped asking me questions about Japan and stopped showing any interest whatsoever in my life here. Also, when I return to Canadaon vacation trips it is increasingly difficult to meet anybody who either shows any interest in Japan, or with whom I can share my experiences and anecdotes. So for me there is always a clear element of loneliness, or at least isolation when I visit my hometown, because there is nobody there I can talk to about Japan. Then along came my nephews with direct questions about samurai. I was very pleased.
As I just wrote, the samurai are, or were Japan’s traditional warriors, military vassals (“bushi”) in service to a military lord - a daimyo, or a shogun. In fact, the word “samurai” means“service.” They constituted a hereditary warrior class, a segment of society devoted to martial purposes much like the knightly class in medieval Europe. But very much unlike medieval European knights, the samurai constituted a much larger percentage of the total population, and they were a mostly literate class. In medieval Europethe ability to read and write was largely confined to the religious class - monastic and clerical - and literacy was largely looked down upon or disregarded by the rest of society for centuries, until urbanization and commerce forced acknowledgment of its utility. But that’s not how it was among the samurai, for whom literacy was not only part of the life of a cultured man, but cultured life was part of the identity of a warrior. So the high rate of literacy among the samurai led to a long history of art - literary art in the form of poetry and diaries, textile art, graphic art, metallurgical art (in the form of super-high quality swords the likes of which were not known in the rest of the world), and more - that in many ways is older than and superior to European culture.
But the samurai represent medieval Japan, just as warrior knights hail from medieval Europe. Because of Japan’s self-imposed isolation from the outside world after initial contact with Europeans in the 16thcentury, feudalism in Japan lasted quite a long time, until the beginning of modern times (the Meiji Era, or Meiji Jidai, in 1867-68). When I say “feudalism” I mean a social structure in which almost all wealth was derived from agriculture, and society was ruled/governed through a train of duty owed to social superiors by their vassals. For the most part, these vassals were land-bound and poor. Although Japan has a long history of urbanization and commerce, for the most part government was through a privileged class of landed gentry whose wealth was measured in the form of agricultural produce - specifically, rice - and who provided obligatory military service to lords higher up in the vertical social hierarchy. Beneath the samurai were the peasants who actually worked the land and who were, in effect, serfs.
Just as European feudalism constituted a pyramid of concentrated power that reached a pinnacle in God, or a King ruling by divine right, or by the Catholic Pope (depending upon which social model from which period of the long and diverse period known as the Middle Ages one is looking at) Japanese feudalism concentrated power upward. But it was more like a ladder with the divine emperor at its top, than a pyramid. By law and custom the precise ranking of social castes in Japan was this: Emperor; shogun; warrior;artisan; farmer; merchant; and, the “burakumin,”the so-called “untouchables” - those people who performed work such as digging graves, chopping meat, and garbage disposal that were associated with death and impurity by the Shinto and Buddhist religions. Each rank, or caste was itself hierarchically ordered. Although the caste system was officially abolished in 1871, and the samurai were absorbed into the general population in 1876 (after several failed rebellions aimed at preserving their traditional rights, and the passage of sumptuary laws to ban their swords and hairstyles in public) the descendants of the burakumin suffered significant discrimination in employment, education, and marriage - and continue to do so even to this day. Despite being a firmly middle class, capitalist democracy, Japanese society remains very conservative and hierarchical. The system of family registration - records of births, deaths, marriages, and residency - means that peoples’ ancestry is on record and the information is available.
(In Japan, people do not have Birth Certificates. They have Family Registers, or Koseki Tohon, which serve the same purpose. For example, I used my wife’ koseki tohon to get a marriage license in Canadawhen we wed. We need a copy, as well, to apply for, or renew Japanese and Canadian passports. When traveled to Canada with my daughter I carried a copy in Japanese and English of our koseki tohon, in addition to other documents, to prove our relationship.)
After the Battle of Sekigahara (1600) in which Tokugawa Ieyasu defeated rival clan lords to become the supreme generalissimo (shogun) of Japan, uniting the island under one government for the first time, the government was organized on strictly military lines. This form of military government was called the “bakufu,” a word that originally meant only the quarters of the military leader, and later came to mean the entire administration under the military leader. The shogun divided the land into provinces governed by military lords called daimyo. To stave rebelliousness the daimyo were required to live some part of the year in Edo(Tokyo) and some part of the year in their provinces, all the while keeping their family in the capital, de facto hostages. This arrangement was very expensive, contributing to the evolution of sophisticated banking systems and techniques independently of the rest of the world. It also contributed to the creation of a widespread transportation infrastructure. So when the Americans under Commodore Matthew C. Perry first visited Japan in Shimoda, ShuzuokaPrefecture south of Tokyo in 1853 Japan was already a well-connected, vibrant urban nation. But still a feudal nation nevertheless, which goes to show that feudalism is not restricted to agrarianism and that feudalism and urbanization do not by their natures eliminate each other, as the case might appear by the European example.
The daimyowere served, in turn, by their private armies of samurai - the only members of Japanese society legally allowed to be armed, whose status was displayed by their hairstyle (“mage”)and by their set of double swords, the long “katana” and the short“wakizashi.” If, for some reason, samurai were always in service to a lord, they were known as “ronin,” or masterless samurai. The word “ronin”originally referred to peasants who had become dispossessed from their land and worked as itinerant agricultural laborers, much like an American cowboy. Later, the word was applied to samurai who lost their masters during battle, or who became dispossessed of their territory and then survived by renting themselves out as hired swords. Some ronin took to highway banditry, and some became martial arts teachers. Today, the word usually refers to students who fail their university entrance examinations and then spend an extra year studying at a cram school (“juju”) to re-take the tests of their preferred university. Also, it is sometimes used for a kind of criminal behavior: people who do not conform to the rules/laws of Japanese society. Of course, this is quite pejorative.
Among Westerners, I guess the image of samurai committing seppuku, ritual suicide, also known as “hara kiri” (literally “cutting the stomach,” and usually mispronounced in American English as “harry carry”) is widely recognized. It is true that the teachings of Bushido, the “Way of the Warrior,” the ethical code of the bushi idealize loyalty and honor, the loss of which demanded face-saving
suicide. But even so it was not common, and is unheard of today.
By the late Edo Period, the final decades of Tokugawa rule in the 1800s, many samurai were in a seriously depleted financial condition similar to what afflicted European aristocracy. The cost of maintaining a bushi lifestyle was great. But the bushis’income was in rice from their estates, subject to the weather and natural disasters and neither secure in volume, nor secure against inflation. The country was moving to hard currency while the aristocracy’s income was still derived in kind. In the end the samurai went the way of European knights, borrowing heavily from urban merchants and banks to maintain their lifestyle all the while falling into unrecoverable penury. Bankers in the city lent and dealt in liquid currency, not in bales of rice, keeping indebted nobility in a constant financial squeeze. In the end, one might say that feudalism in Japancollapsed largely by itself after only a nudge from the outside world.
The disappearance of the samurai as a social caste in the 1870s went a long way toward erasing the nobility from Japanese society. But not entirely. Current descendents of ancient samurai families remember their heritage, and they have their family registers to prove their pedigree. Post World War Two constitutional, economic, educational and social reforms of General Douglas MacArthur and Occupation administrators pushed the erasure of ancient Japanese aristocracy even further. These days, when a royal family member marries a commoner - as happened on June 9, 1993 when Crown Prince Naruhito married “commoner” Masako Owada - much is made of it in the media. However, since there is no longer an aristocracy in Japanoutside the Imperial Family itself I fail to see why the media’s social commentators (and foreign Japanwatchers) say anything at all about it.
When Commodore Perry and three American sail-and-steam-powered ships visited Japan in 1853 the boy who would accede the throne as Emperor Meiji was only one year old. He became Emperor in 1868 at the age of 16. The Boshin Senso, or Boshin Civil War of 1868-69 resulted in the fall of the Tokugawa family shogunate and the ‘restoration’ of direct imperial power (although to describe it that way is certainly to “spin” the story in an ideological direction). Pro-imperial forces led by Satsuma and Choshu clans from Kyushu seized the Kyoto ImperialPalace (“gosho”),and the last Shogun, Tokugawa Yoshinobu withdrew from the Edoand the Edo castle to his hometown of Mito, in Ibaraki Prefecture northeast of Tokyo where his descendents continue to live to this day.
It took me many, many years to learn what happened to the Tokugawa family and the last shogun. I asked English-speaking museum guides. I asked many adult students. I asked an English-speaking guide at Kyoto’sgoshopalace when I visited there in 1993, and none could answer. I was only told that the shogunate was“overthrown.” (When I tried to explain to guides that that did not tell me what happened to them the day after, or the day after that they just didn’t get it. Finally, I learned from another foreign
visitor at the Kyoto ImperialPalace taking the same tour I was on. This is something that I have learned. In many instances foreigners know more about Japan that the Japanese do themselves. I suppose that some foreigners come here with a particular objective. They want to study a traditional art, with a deep and driving interest in omething that most modern Japanese care little about. The result is sometimes that foreigners excel at a traditional Japanese thing beyond the Japanese themselves: ikebana (flower arrangement); a martial art; traditional theater, music, or an art form such as paper or silk design, woodblock printing or sumie ink painting, etc.)
Emperor Meiji moved to Edoand took up residence in the Edo castle, “koukyo,”which remains the ImperialPalace today. The Tokyo ImperialPalace represents another great mystery to me. A great castle used to sit on the site. The largest castle (“shiro”)in the world today is the OsakaCastle, Osaka jo. But Edocastle in Tokyowas even larger, when it stood. So my query is when was the castle destroyed? In particular, when and how was the castle keep, the white tower, lost? No Japanese seem to know. When I try to ask about it I say, “Edo castle used to be the largest castle in the world. But what happened to it?” I am instructed that Osaka jo is the largest castle in the world.
“Yes, I know that, but that is not what I said.” Obviously this is another case of me knowing more about it than the Japanese do themselves. Unless I am mistaken (which I am not).
But slowly over the years it has come to me that Edo castle was destroyed (by fire, one of the traditional great disasters that afflict Japan) and re-constructed several times over the centuries. It ceased being a purely military fortification long before the end of the feudal Tokugawa Era, and by the time the teenaged Emperor Meiji moved to Edo and took up residence there the castle structure was long gone, which explains why there are no daguerrotypes, copper plates, etchings, or early photographs of it. But it does not explain why there are no woodblock print representations of it, or any other visual representation that I know of. Also, if there was a castle keep at one time - destroyed and rebuilt, and destroyed and rebuilt again, and then finally destroyed a last time - I haven’t yet discovered any source that tells me when it last stood. The Japanese themselves don’t seem to care. Reflecting the culture’s consideration for cosmetic appearance over interior substance, I was surprised and shocked to learn that the great castles of old Japan that still stand today and are great tourist draws are in fact empty shells. There is nothing inside except the wooden skeleton of the frame. No floors and corridors, no rooms, etc. What a gyp. All that remained of Edo Castlewhen the young Emperor Meiji took up residence there is all that remains today - large moats, massive stone ramparts, and verdant woods.
So what became of Japan’s historical warrior spirit and its practitioners? First, remember that bushido was propaganda for a despotic dictatorship, despite the Hollywoodpresentation of it in films like The Last Samurai (Tom Cruise) and Shogun(Richard Chamberlain). Next, remember that Japan’s military leaders of the Pacific War were not samurai. They were fascists and criminals. Bearing a sword during that conflict did not make an Imperial Japanese Army officer a samurai warrior infused with honor. Finally, it is doubtful that the famous kamikazepilots had any legitimate connection at all to bushido. Nevertheless, Japanese became famous as a people of great discipline and steadfastness - qualities that shed light on the country’s economic success and which may be traceable to the ideals of the old warrior class. The samurai still exist exactly where they always existed - more in people’s imaginations than anywhere else; just like the cowboy, or the Mountie, or the Knight.