The Life of the Samurai

If you watch a lot of jidai geki, Japanese costume drama, you will see people killed all the time. The two bodyguards – Suke-san and Kaku-san – who protect Mito Koumon kill dozens of people every episode. There are at least three murders in every episode of Ooka Echizen and the judge routinely sentences the bad guys to death by beheading. (The show’s been running for over three decades. You’d think Edo would have run out of villains by now.)

Those samurai shows are something like Japan’s answer to Westerns. Steve McQueen alone killed more people in his TV series than actually lived in Wyoming in the 1950’s. The real world was not anywhere near as violent.

In the two and a half centuries that we now call the Edo Period (1603-1868), there were six beheadings in the district of Edo. The situation was also similar in other “tenryo” – districts governed by the shogun. Other areas, “han” governed by the regional lords, were even more peaceful. Crime was almost totally unheard of. When it did happen, it was handled by local low level authorities – such as the wakodoshu or yoriai which were autonomous community councils of the area.

The peace came at a price. Almost nobody was allowed to travel. Every “han” set up road blocks at random places where travelers were questioned and were demanded documents. You needed birth certificates from your temple, your identifications issued by the autonomous councils of whatever class you belonged to, certification of your business from your guild and passports from your local government, none of which were cheap or easy to get. To their credit, the samurai governments did not collect road taxes that I am aware of. They were not doing this for profit, they were doing this to keep the peace. So you see, Japanese bureaucracy has a long and hallowed tradition of being anal.

It must have been terribly difficult for criminals to get away with anything under these circumstances. Everyone lived in small societies where people knew each other. Temples and shrines kept records of who married who and how many children they begat, and still do. (I will make my pilgrimage to the temple in Saga one day and find out the name of my ancestor who fought in the army that repelled Kublai Khan.) Everyone knew who you were related to and who your friends were.

I was never a good student of history and the laws that governed the people of the Edo period is far too complex and voluminous for my mind to sort out or my fingers to type. Suffice it to say that the farmers lived by different laws than the samurai and that the samurai got more severe punishments for even the smallest offences.

While the commoners had much sexual freedom, the samurai did not. Adultery was pretty much a matter of privacy and something for husbands and wives to sort out by themselves for the commoner. For the samurai, it was punishable by death. A commoner could just apply for a job. A samurai had to take an oath of loyalty or death, and go through the gamut of legal red tape – and even then, there were things you could not do because you were not born to it. Both men and women could inherit if you were a commoner. In some cases, as with merchants in Osaka, fortunes were passed down to the oldest daughter. If you were a samurai, everything went to the oldest son. The second oldest son got nothing. He couldn’t even marry. He was just backup in case the older son died. (My father is still sore about how he – the overachiever – was treated in contrast to his pampered older brother – a total slacker – back when he was a kid in post-war Japan. Such is the power of tradition.) The commoners society was still very much matriarchal in the pagan Japanese tradition, while the samurai’s society, which had adopted Confucian morals, was totally patriarchal. Fashions changed for the commoner frequently, especially in the big cities. The samurai, whose clothes signified rank and position, wore pretty much the same clothes for hundreds of years.

It was tough being a samurai. A samurai was not supposed to sleep on his left side. The idea was, should an assassin come in during the night and chopped at you from above, you should not leave your right arm vulnerable to his attack. If he wounded your left arm, you could still draw your sword with your right arm and strike back. It was not at all likely that an assassin would come in during the centuries when Japan was at peace, but many samurai never slept on their left sides all their lives. Another example is the pot of gold they kept as war chest. Real samurai kept their ancestral suit of armor in a box with a small pot of gold to be used as war money in case some lord would call on them to join in battle. Many samurai became masterless ronin during the Edo period and lived in poverty doing odd end jobs to get by. Some samurai despaired of their lot and chose to commit suicide in a glorious finale rather than to starve to death. Yet after their death, it was found that the pot of gold in their box of armor was left untouched. In the mind of the samurai, this was not something you could buy your bread with.

Examples of the stoicism of the samurai abound. And each story was told to the next generation of samurai in a continuous cycle of re-feeding. The tradition went on until the story of Kiguchi Kohei, a buck private and bugle blower in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894, was told to every child born in Japan after his time. The practice was banned after Japan’s defeat in WWII.

So what happened when a samurai committed a crime against a commoner? There really aren’t very many examples to draw upon. A theft committed by a commoner was punishable by anything from public whippings to beheadings depending on the amount stolen. A theft by a samurai was decapitation regardless of the amount. In some cases, even suspicion of theft was enough grounds for suicide. That’s a lot of deterrence for crime. But more importantly, any family that produces a samurai who falls out of line could face “oie danzetsu” – literally, “discontinuation of family line”. The family will be deprived of all income. No son of the family will ever again be accepted by the authorities as heir to the position held by the family, and thus the whole family would become ronin – the most shamefull fate for any samurai family.

Some of you may have seen one of many movie adaptations of Chushingura. This is a story about a whole “han” becoming “oie danzetsu“. In this case, Lord Asano drew his sword in the shogun’s palace against prohibitions to do so and he is sentenced to suicide and all his subjects become ronin. A lot of subjects found re-employment in neighboring “han” but many were out of luck. These guys join together to avenge their master who they perceived was provoked into drawing his sword by Lord Kira. This “oie danzetsu” was the most dreaded of all punishments for the samurai. And as I explained before, if you draw your sword in public and failed to kill your opponent, you will have to commit suicide and your immediate family will face “oie danzetsu“. The same could happen if you commit a crime.

So if you are already a ronin you had nothing to lose, right? Not quite, like I said, even starving ronin held themselves to a very high moral standard. They had nothing else to live for but their honor. They would not do anything that would get them beheaded like common thieves.

It is true that a lot of unemployed samurai got fed up with it after a few generations and gave up their sword and turned commoner. It was quite understandable when you think that samurai couldn’t even sleep alone in the manner they pleased. In this case, they no longer had licence to kill nor could they have a surname. But they had freedoms they never had before.

Still, a lot of ronin remained ronin for many generations in the hope that they will one day be employed as samurai. The story of Chushingura is based on an actual incident. The subjects of Lord Asano became ronin in 1701. Some of the subjects tore into Lord Kira’s mansion and chopped off his head as revenge. But some of the ronin failed show up at the showdown. Those who participated in the revenge were sentenced to death by suicide for breaking the shogun’s ban against such attacks, but became heroes in the eyes of many in the warrior class and their families were duly rewarded. Those who didn’t show up lived in shame and suffered brutal discrimination for generations onward. In 1863, a group of ronin were employed by the shogun to battle the rising unrest of agitators against the waning Tokugawa shogunite. The elite squad of master swordsmen was called “Shinsen gumi” and included a descendant of one of the ronin who didn’t make it to the revenge against Kira more than seven scores before. It is recorded that he was still being discriminated against and every failure was being blamed on him. Only when he finally died bravely in battle was the seeming cowardice of his ancestors atoned for. His family suffered for generations for this moment of glory.

A great deal of this tradition has been lost. In fact it is hard to imagine what it was like being a samurai for us today. They generally did not live in luxury. They were idle in peace time, but they were required to live in a state of alertness all the time. They were rewarded, for the most part, with honor. Just plain honor and nothing else. What a pain in the ass a life like that must have been.

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