Cultural Appropriation and Racial Segregation

I have already expressed my displeasure with the movement of policing “cultural appropriation” back when there was a backlash against the Kimono Wednesday event at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Like all moralizing efforts, cultural appropriation policing is rife with contradictions and hypocrisies.

There may have once been some merit to the idea of cultural appropriation. If you wore a ceremonial Native American headdress without actually being a Native American performing a ceremony, you could be disrespectfully appropriating a culture that was not your own, at least in the eyes of people who are offended. It doesn’t hurt to be a little mindful of these things when the doctrine is not taken to an extreme, but the margin cam be razor thin.

I once traveled to Okinawa and talked to a local cab driver who told me a little about traditional Okinawan culture and how he was sometimes offended at the insensitivity of the tourists from the mainland. Private grave sites, though unusual and spectacular as they may be, should not be a place for taking photographs, for example. He also did not like hibiscus patterns used on swimsuits and hibiscus worn as hair ornaments. Hibiscus, in his view, was a flower for the dead to be solemnly offered to graves. It was insensitive, he said, that the flower be treated so frivolously. In Hawaii, however, a hibiscus worn behind a woman’s ear represents her romantic situation, vaguely like an engagement ring though not as constricting. As such it has become widely accepted as a tropical symbol of love. The hibiscus is also the national flower of Haiti, Malaysia, and South Korea. It also represents the Hindu goddess Kali. Thus I believe the Okinawan cab driver, though genuinely offended he may have been, was over reaching when he claimed ownership of the hibiscus flower and tried to dictate how its symbolism could and could not be used.

As for the Native American headdress, almost none of the feather headdresses in use in North America are traditionally made. Most employ the use of epoxies and other modern materials. The vast majority are factory-made in China. Few actual Native Americans actually possess the skill to make traditional headdresses with traditional methods. The best traditional headdress craftsmen are Japanese. The skill is being preserved by a small group of enthusiasts who were initially inspired by Hollywood Westerns.

Hollywood Westerns also influenced Japanese movies and revolutionized the samurai movie genre. Samurai movies were once derisively called “chambara”, which is a word that represents the sounds of swords clashing. Like pornography, the point of the movie was not the plot but the action. The influence of John Ford et al changed that forever. Movies about the samurai no longer climaxed in the battle between the Red Clan and the White Clan. It became a dispute over humanity in the murky middle ground between civilized rectitude and outlaw justice. This in turn influenced Hollywood Westerns by John Sturges and others, Spaghetti Westerns by Sergio Leone and others, all the way to George Lucas. But it did not end there. Terence Young threw a samurai and gunslingers in the same movie in a French-Italian-Spanish co-production Western. The influence went back to a Hollywood Western by Antoine Fuqua. And Takashi Miike took the samurai-movie-influenced Westerns, moved the stage back to Japan, and created a major mashup. That is the nature of cultural cross-pollination.

We live in an increasingly globalized world and we cannot keep foreign ideas out of our local neighborhoods. The tourists wearing swimwear splashed with hibiscus patterns are not appropriating Okinawan culture but are importing a Hawaiian one. You cannot put a lid on everything that offends you.

Except for the extreme ideologues, most people seem to agree that it is the nature of culture to mix. Overly rigid application of “cultural appropriation” to every element of culture only stifles progress and creativity. Some people have been trying to come up with a definition for “cultural appropriation” that is supposed to work.

A writer named Briahna Joy Gray recently suggested that “disrespect” and “economic exploitation” should factor in. I believe this is utter nonsense. A White man presenting a foolish performance in blackface is not “cultural appropriation” but racial mockery. And Led Zeppelin not giving credit to Delta bluesmen who wrote their songs is not “cultural appropriation” but outright plagiarism. In this context, the term “cultural appropriation” becomes an instrument for softening the truth, perhaps in the same ballpark as calling toilet paper “bathroom tissue” and impotence “a virility problem”. Led Zeppelin is not stealing, they are just culturally appropriating.

Gray goes on to cite Elvis Presley as an example of “cultural appropriation” backed by unilateral commercial gain, which is faulty reasoning on two fronts. In Presley’s day, black artists remained poor and white artists who covered them became rich, not because of “cultural appropriation” but because of racism, theft, and oppression. She also conveniently ignores that Elvis Presley’s Hound Dog, which was a sanitized and neutered version of Big Mama Thornton’s outrageously sex-themed song, would have made even less sense if it were sung by Nat King Cole. Presley was a master of musical sexuality in the way Cole was not. The fact that one singer was white and the other was black becomes irrelevant. Presley was white, but so were John Lennon, and Jerry Lee Lewis, both of whom had covered the same song with much less success. Presley owes his success primarily to Presley.

Jazz and blues, and eventually rock, began primarily as the music of African Americans, which only came into being when Africans, with their own musical traditions, came into contact with Western musical tones and musical instruments. Black music is African inspired music, not actual African music. And Black music, like jazz and blues, are a fusion of African and European traditions; a product of cultural cross-pollination. It never would have come into existence at all if cultures did not mix.

In fact there is very little justification for policing “cultural appropriation” and most examples of “justified” policing, on closer inspection, are not justified at all. The vast majority of the cases are just plain ridiculous. There was a burrito shop in Portland run by two white women that was forced to shut down on accusations of cultural appropriation. That sounds extreme as a stand alone incident, but becomes even more outrageous in light of Anthony Bourdain’s statement that the best French chefs in North America are Mexicans. Why is it cultural appropriation for white people to cook burritos, but not cultural appropriation for Mexicans to be French chefs? No pun intended, this is my beef with this issue.

My problem with making cultural appropriation extend to everything is not only that it stifles creativity, but that it normalizes white supremacism.

Why is it never wrong for an Asian or an African to wear a necktie, but wrong for a White person to wear a Zulu necklace? That is actually a trick question. A “White” person is a fiction. Anyone from Greece to Finland, from California to Vladivostok can be “White”, though almost nobody is purely genetically of European origin. “White” is not an actual race. It is a social race. And there is really no such thing as “White” culture, as one look at Albanian or Polish traditional costumes will show.

If an Asian or an African wears a necktie, he is seen as moving one step closer to “civilization”, while a White woman in a Zulu necklace is seen as moving away. A Mexican who becomes a French chef is moving up in society, whereas white women serving burritos are headed in the opposite direction. An attack on “cultural appropriation” is a reinforcement of the doctrine “White good, colored bad”.

The very concept of “cultural appropriation” is supposed to hinge on the history of domination and oppression. Non-white people have been conquering, oppressing, and enslaving each other for millennia. So if a Chinese woman wears a Japanese kimono, or a Japanese woman wears a Chinese cheongsam, why is that not cultural appropriation? Because White Domination over other races is somehow a special kind of domination. Policing cultural appropriation, which is based on the dichotomy of “white vs non-white”, reinforces this notion and serves to glorify white superiority.

The opposite of “cultural appropriation” is “racial conformism”, which is another way of saying “put the coloreds in their place”. If you object to White people wearing Zulu necklaces, what you are actually saying is “Let the Zulus wear Zulu necklaces.” The end result is racial segregation, not by physical walls, but by culture.

Opposing racism is fine. But if you oppose an ill defined notion of cultural appropriation, and focus it on the “white vs non-white” dichotomy, you are not opposing racism but enhancing it.

What does any of this have to do with writing? Fiction, like movies and music, thrives on cultural cross-pollination. Long before modern publishing, the oral folklore of yamamba, the Japanese witch creature, and baba-yaga, the Russian witch creature, shared similar stories. Krampus, the horned anthropomorphic creature of Eastern Europe, and namahage, the horned anthropomorphic creature of northern Japan, share almost exactly the same legends. Stories have traveled the world and fused and meshed for millennia, changing small elements over time to adapt to different environments. Yet recently, a writer named Catherynne Valente was accused of cultural appropriation for adopting elements of Russian folklore in a fantasy novel. I could respond to this nonsense in any number of ways, but what if I told you that those fantasy elements that segregationists seemed to object to were not Russian folklore at all, but Japanese folklore, which has its origins in Chinese folklore, which was heavily influenced by Tibetan folklore, whose origins can be traced to Hindu mythologies, which has parallels in Macedonian fairytales, which bare resemblance to Russian folklore, but can also be traced to Egyptian origins? Stories cross react over cultural boundaries. That’s the nature of it. It is unavoidable.



The name, Okay-hah-zama, almost sounds like an Oriental rendition of the name “OK Corral”. Actually, “oke” means “bucket” and “hazama” can mean “valley” or even “gorge”, thus “Okehazama” would mean “Bucket Valley”. The name implies a geographical pinch point, like Thermopylae. Nobody knows exactly where the battle of Okehazama took place, and debate had raged for centuries on how Oda Nobunaga, with just two thousand troops, managed to defeat Imagawa Yoshimoto’s massive army, said to be anywhere from twenty five thousand to fifty thousand soldiers.

In the aftermath of the battle, the mighty Imagawa fiefdom disintegrated, not in small part because Matsudaira Motoyasu (soon to change his name to Tokugawa Ieyasu) broke away from Imagawa rule and allied with Nobunaga. While Nobunaga gained strength, recovered lost territory, and went on to unite Japan under his banner. It was a true turning point in history.

Nobunaga was only 26 years old at the time, and had newly succeeded his father as the leader of the Oda clan. He had a reputation for eccentricity and was dubbed “the fool”.  By contrast, Yoshimoto was 41 years old, had been the leader of the Imagawa clan since he was 17, came from an old noble family, and was granted the name Yoshimoto from Ashikaga Yoshiharu, the eleventh shogun of the Ashikaga shogunate. Although the power of the shogunate had been dwindling for some time, it was still a great honor that granted him considerable authority.

Following the death of Nobunaga’s father, Imagawa Yoshimoto’s clan had been nibbling away at the territories of the Oda clan for years. Oda fortresses and outposts were falling one by one. The Imagawa clan had taken control of the entire eastern coast of Ise bay. The powerful clan was now ready to make their final move on the Oda clan, crush them once and for all, and clear their way to Kyoto, where Yoshimoto could join forces with the shogun and rebuild the shogunate with himself as regent. In May of 1560, Imagawa Yoshimoto lead his army into Oda territory. The five hundred soldiers defending Marune fortress were the first to be slaughtered. Washizu fortress was the next to fall. The Imagawa army was unstoppable.

Oral historians of the era blamed Yoshimoto’s arrogance and complacency for his defeat. Written records inked decades after the event credit the valor of Nobunaga’s soldiers. Legends and fiction depicts Nobunaga as a tactical genius, which he probably was, but there were great many elements involved. Yoshimoto was confident enough to divide up his army and send them off on independent sorties. There was perhaps more booty to go around that way. He kept only five thousand of his closest men around him, not all of them combat personnel. Nobunaga’s smaller army was agile enough to sneak between Yoshimoto’s divided army and strike directly at the center. And a sudden downpour fortunately masked Nobunaga’s approach, helping his surprise attack.

In spite of the fact we do not know exactly where the battle was fought, exactly how big Yoshimoto’s army was, or exactly how the battle was won, all accounts agree on some curious details. Yoshimoto, who cared very much about his connections to high aristocracy, dyed his teeth black and powdered his face white in the aristocratic fashion, and lead his army on a palanquin instead of on horseback. When Yoshimoto was finally cornered, he struggled with a young soldier named Yoshikatsu and bit off his finger. When his head was presented to Nobunaga, the pale dead finger was still between the nobleman’s blackened teeth.

This all happened in a time when people still believed in magic, ghosts, curses, and gods. Modern writers and historians tend to downplay this element, and even Nobunaga’s contemporaries avoided recording the various rumors and supernatural theories surrounding the miraculous victory.

What would the people of the time thought of Yoshimoto’s defeat? What divine retribution lead to his downfall? What sacrilege did Yoshimoto commit that aligned the gods against him so? What angry spirits, what vengeful ghosts had such a grudge against Lord Yoshimoto?

Remember that Yoshimoto had already conquered all the key fortresses that stood in his way, and he had sent his armies on sorties in search of booty. His forces were set free to rob and rape the villagers and town people. This was probably not the first time such action was taken. And it was because his army was off to pillage the people that Yoshimoto was left open to Nobunaga’s surprise attack. No doubt, in his time, people whispered of the anger of various patron spirits of the villages and townships plundered and destroyed by the Imagawa army. But nobody recorded, in so many words, that angry gods took vengeance on Yoshimoto. It was a frightening thought to put into words. Best not to mention them lest the spirits turn against you.

Instead they recorded the details. Yoshimoto’s dismembered head was delivered to Nobunaga, teeth dyed pretentious black, face powdered foppish white, and his killer’s finger still in his mouth.


Are We Fighting More or Less?

“Why am I Mr. Pink?”
“‘Cause you’re a FAGGOT. That’s Why!”
– Reservoir Dogs

So, this guy named Mr. Pinker, he believes that the world is collectively outgrowing war and turning into nice, domesticated, peace-loving adults, because he’s Mr. Pinker, while this guy named Mr. Gray has a darker, storm-clouds-ahead view of the world because, you know, he’s Mr. Gray.

I am of course talking about Steven Pinker whose best-selling book Better Angels of Our Nature, argues that war and violence is in decline. English political philosopher John Gray (not to be confused with the American inspirational speaker of the same name) says in his essay that Pinker is full of BS, his statistics are hogwash, and his academics deserve a dunce cap.

But the argument seems so utterly pedantic. For example, Pinker theorizes that the increase of wealth and the diffusion of enlightened values have contributed to the decline of violent conflicts world wide. Gray counters that, although largely forgotten, the original Enlightenment thinkers were a bunch of anti-Semitics, racists, bigots, and misogynists. He points out that Jacobins and Bolshevics, who endorsed violence, were off shoots of Enlightenment thinking, not to even mention the pseudo-scientific racism of the Nazis. Pinker counters that such impure thoughts do not count because they are aberrations from the true creed of Enlightenment. And then the argument delves into a penis size contest over who is more intellectual based on the understanding of what “enlightened” really means. (Don’t tell me about Enlightenment! Nobody knows Enlightenment better than me! I am the most Enlightened person you will ever meet!)

What really irks me is Gray saying “There is something repellently absurd in the notion that war is a vice of “backward” peoples” because so many wars were introduced to formerly peaceful legions by colonial powers. From my point of view, that only proves that the colonial powers were more “backward” than the colonized. Then he goes on to say “the idea that violence is declining in the most highly developed countries is questionable. Judged by accepted standards, the United States is the most advanced society in the world” but the US has the world’s highest incarceration rate. Therefore, highly developed countries can be violent. Why does Gray keep insisting that his choice of countries are always the “most advanced”? Would it have anything to do with the fact that he is a white Englishman from Oxford University? In his view, “colonial powers” and the United States must be the most civilized places in the world, and because they are violent, it is not the “backward” countries that are violent. By extension, he is saying that if you are not from Western Europe or North America, you are automatically backward whether you are violent or not. I find this guy repellently absurd.

As for the actual statistics, it gets even more pedantic. Gray cites Nassim Nicholas Taleb who argues convincingly in his essay that Pinker’s conclusion that war is decreasing may only be statistical noise, a transient anomaly that can easily be cancelled out when placed in a larger context. That gives Taleb the right to call Pinker’s assertion a fallacy, but it does not prove Pinker wrong. Post hoc ergo propter hoc is a fallacy. “The ground is wet after the rain. The rain must be the cause of the wetness” can be right or wrong.

The truth is, there is now no conflict that can be classified as wars in North America, South America, Western Europe, South Asia, South East Asia, East Asia, Southern Africa, and Australia. The only actual wars are confined in Ukraine, the Middle East, and Northern to Mid Africa. we are indeed seeing the decline of war. This may be a transient fluke or it could be a trend.

The penis size contest between two white men is totally irrelevant. What is incontrovertible is that we are at a low point in the history of violence. What can we do to turn this into a trend? That is the question we should be asking. Not whether John Stuart Mill was right or wrong.

What ideas should we project to the world that will make it a better, more humane, and more livable place? What are the obstacles? What are the trends we should nurture and what are the trends we should stifle? We should not rest on our laurels at seeing the world more peaceful than ever. We need to understand why it is more peaceful and work to keep it going.

If anyone out there wants a Nobel Prize, I can tell you how to get one: Construct a philosophy backed by statistical analysis that tells you how to make the world a safer, more peaceful place. Do not be Mr. Pinker who only says the world is getting more peaceful, but analyze what is happening and devise a plan to make the world more peaceful.

(Sorry that I deviated from the topic of writing, but then again, someone might be inspired to write a book about Long Peace.)

The Mongolian Invasion

Khublai Khan, grandson of Ghingis Khan, sent an invasion force to Japan twice. Once in 1274 and once in 1281. According to legend, a storm hit the Mongolians just as they reached Japan and repelled their invasion. Thus was born the legend that “kamikaze” – “divine wind” – was protecting Japan.

The Japanese were certainly disadvantaged. In the first invasion, Khan sent 26 thousand Mongolian and Korean troops on 900 ships. The defenders are estimated to have numbered 5 to 10 thousand. The mongolians used gunpowder in the form of bombs (guns had yet to be invented) and fought in groups. The Japanese had a custom of fighting in duels as the rest of the army watched in the background. It was something of a formal ritual. Champion warriors of each team would come forward and give long-winded introductions of themselves before engaging in single combat in front of the troops. Mongolians were more practical about war and they did not care for ritualistic duels. It is recorded that many Japanese soldiers were killed while they were trying to announce their names. The bombs startled the Japanese and their horses. The Mongolians used extremely long ranged short bows with poisoned arrowheads. Also, the long sweeping swords favored by the Japanese of the time tended to break on the hard Mongolian armor. After the first Mongolian invasion, the Japanese swords were shortened and thickened and took the shape that they have today.

The Mongolians had sent several envoys to Japan prior to the invasion demanding surrender. The whole of Japan was ordered by the emperor to perform magical rites to curse and defeat the enemy. So when the Mongolians mysteriously terminated the first invasion, it was natural for the defenders to think that all the cursing paid off and that some divine force had helped them out.

I grew up thinking that there really was a storm that defeated the Mongolians and that Japan was just plain lucky. But there actually was no record of a storm in the first invasion, neither in Japanese nor Chinese accounts of the event. The Japanese, it seems, looked out to sea one morning and discovered that the Mongolian ships were gone.

The second invasion consisted of 40 thousand Mongolian-Korean troops and 100 thousand Chinese troops on 4400 ships. This must have been the biggest landing operation in history up to that time. So if it was just dumb luck that repelled the Mongolians first time around, why did they bother to send five times as many troops the second time?

After the first invasion, Khan sent ambassadors to Japan twice. Both times they were all beheaded. So, Khan had good reason to be pissed off. But that doesn’t explain why he spent so much money to flatten an inferior force that got off on a lucky break.

The second time around, Japan was clearly lucky. The 40 thousand troops reached the coast of Hiraga in early June, but the 100 thousand troops from Mongolian occupied China was delayed because the Chinese commander fell ill (or so he said) and didn’t arrive until July. During this time, the 40 thousand that left the Korean penninsula anchored off Hiraga and waited there without landing. That’s right, 40 thousand people were living on the water for a whole month. The effect on morale must have been awful, not to mention the inevitable logistic problems of providing food and water. They made some sorties to Shikanoshima in mid June, but did not get foothold on shore and went back to their ships by night. By the time the reinforcements from China arrived, it was storm season. Due to mix of foul weather and Japanese resistance, the Mongolians lost three fourths of their forces and retreated to Korea. A third invasion was planned but never realized due to unrest within Khublai Khan’s empire.

So what accounted for this strange behavior of the Mongolian invaders at the second invasion? Why did the Mongolians wait so long for reinforcements to arrive and why did they stay on their ships and not camp on land?

Let’s look at what happened in the first invasion.

The Mongolian ships appeared off Hakata on October 19th, 1274. Upon dawn on October 20th, the 26 thousand invasion troops landed. The Japanese who were waiting for them were outnumbered perhaps by 3 to 1. The defenders resisted fiercely, but with the combination of superior weapons and tactics and greater numbers, the invasion troops advanced. The defenders retreated to Mizuki fortress. They were furious that the Mongolians did not follow the protocols of war. They made an oath to fight until every Mongolian was dead. The Japanese turned to the offensive again after nightfall and struck in the cover of darkness. On the morning of the 21st, they looked out to sea and found that all 900 ships of the invasion troops had disappeared. The samurai were left scratching their heads as to what happened. They concluded that it must have been divine intervention. The invaders left behind 13 thousand of their own dead.

The War and Peace of Japan

I found that even some of the relatively knowledgeable foreigner friends did not know a basic fact of Japanese history that all Japanese take for common knowledge: The Emperor was never samurai.

The word “samurai” derives from the word “to serve”. The emperor is nobody’s servant. So it is quite obvious from the linguistics of it. It is also important historically.

Written history in Japan began in the year 720 when the emperor ordered the publication of “Nihon Shoki” the official government record of events. A little before that in the year 712, the government ordered the creation of “Kojiki“, or “Record of Old Things”, which was the transcription of oral history that had been passed down through the generations by story tellers. “Kojiki” recounts the story of how Emperor Tennmu, one of the sons of the Sun Goddess, landed in Nakatsu Kuni (believed to be in Kyushu. I was in a town called Nakatsu while I wrote this) and embarked on an eastward conquest that expanded his territory to include the area that is now known as Kansai. But all of this happened before written history. There are no records of the emperor actually leading troops into battle after written history has started.

By the late 9th century, the emperor was already a figurehead. Actual rule was performed by aristocrats who served as “sesshou“, proxies, if the emperor was young or was a woman and as “kanpaku“, advisors, if the emperor was a grown man. By the 10th century, the Fujiwara clan had attained a monopoly on the “sesshou” and “kanpaku” positions. This was sometimes realized by marrying the daughter of the Fujiwara clan into the imperial household. The heir to the throne would then be the grandson of the Fujiwara patriarch, who would then be in a position to advise the young emperor on matters of state. The “kanpaku” was the de facto emperor for several centuries. A retired emperor was called “joukou“, which was initially a ceremonial position but eventually became an advisory position more powerful than the puppet emperor. The influence of the “joukou” increased in the late 11th century. To counter the combined weight of the emperor and the “joukou“, a retired “kanpaku” came to be called “taikou” which became another powerful advisory position. From the 9th to most of the 12th century, politics was carried out largely through court diplomacy, detached from the nitty gritty of the battle field. These court aristocrats were called “kugeh” and lived in a lofty world of poetry and incense, away from the reality of the common people around them.

The filthy business of violence was relegated to the lower orders. The “kebiishi“, which policed the streets of Kyoto, were considered a supplementary position not counted as one of the imperial bureaucracy. That was all right as long as the nation was peaceful. But as the faction ridden government became ineffectual, and as new methods of steel production made steel instruments cheaper and more available, a new warring underclass was born and took matters into their own hands. Initially, they were called “yebisu” (barbarians) or “tsuwamono” (strong men) and they were despised by the aristocracy. But they would eventually become known as the “samurai”.

The samurai class eventually consolidated into two main factions, the Taira clan (which fought under a plain red banner) and the Minamoto clan (who held a plain white banner). The rivalry is said to be the origin of kouhaku (紅白), the contest of red-team and white-team seen in so many competitions. Their conflict culminated in the Genpei War. After much bloodshed, Minamoto Yoritomo became the first warrior to unite the nation under his banner. The imperial government finally woke up to the reality and offered Yoritomo the position of “shogun”, the generalismo of all imperial soldiers. Thus was born the first shogunate which lasted from 1192 to 1333 (Kamakura period). It was now the shogunate that held the real power. The imperial government continued to exist, but its actual influence waned.

No sooner was the shogunate born than the shogun became figurehead. Hojo Tokimasa became “shikken”, regent to the shogun, and the Hojo clan held that position until the shogunate fell apart. More damaging was that the “kugeh” embarked on a power sharing scheme by marrying their daughters into the shogun’s and the regent’s bloodlines. Adopting the esoteric customs of the aristocracy, the highest samurai leaders forgot their warrior roots and became very much like the poetry writing, incense burning, culturally sophisticated kugeh. Eventually, the rule became ineffectual again and after the invasion of Khublai Khan’s Mongolian forces (1274) burdened the shogunate with massive military expenditures, the shogunate went downhill.

A group of revivalists lead by Emperor Godaigo fought and distroyed the first shogunate, hoping to bring back the rule of the emperor again. A group of warriors lead by Ashikaga Takauji sided with the emperor. But once the shogunate was defeated, the “kugeh” treated the warriors with such disdain that Takauji broke ranks with the emperor and formed his own government. Another puppet emperor was put on the throne and Japan experienced a schism of two emperors between 1333 and 1392. The new puppet emperor appointed Takauji shogun and the second shogunate was born (Muromachi period).

Once peace was attained, the “kugeh”, once again, married their daughters into the shogunate. The third shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu actually doubled as the “kanpaku”, the emperor’s advisor. Soon the shogun became figurehead again. His power was eaten away by the regional lords that surrounded him. The 8th shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa was more interested in art and gardening and his wife took over politics. He was the Nero who fiddled as Kyoto burned. He was not particularly a tyrant, just detached from the real world in a wimpy aristocratic way.

It was during his reign that Japan entered “Sengoku Jidai” or “The Era of the Warring Lords” (1467 to 1568). This is the era in which many Kurosawa films (“Kagemusha” “Ran” “The Hidden Fortress” “Throne of Blood”) and some samurai video games (“Onimusha”) are set. For a century, Japan was in a state of perpetual war. The Muromachi shogunate, powerless and ornamental, persisted until 1573. Meanwhile, in this era when real power counted, the power of the the “kugeh” who depended on peacetime court diplomacy, was diminished to nil.

Still, when Oda Nobunaga emerged as the primary power in the nation, he made offerings to the gentrified shogun in order to legitimize his conquests of what resistance remained. Nobunaga allied with the shogun, who sought to use Nobunaga to bring him back to power. If Nobunaga played along, his lineage might have ruled Japan as the new regent clan with the shogun as figurehead. Nobunaga, a visionary with grand designs, was not satisfied with such antiquated status quo and eventually collided with the shogun, who used his authority to unite all of Nobunaga’s enemies against him. A coordinated effort to surround and defeat Nobunaga failed twice. Evidence suggests that after he triumphed over the shogun, Nobunaga had plans to usurp the Emperor as well (hence the video game Nobunaga’s Ambition). His over sized ambition may have contributed to his assassination.

After Nobunaga’s death, however, Hashiba Hideyoshi took over. He showed no interest in becoming regent or shogun, but he did not try to overthrow the emperor either. Instead, he became kanpaku, chief adviser to the  Emperor. As such, he enlisted the aristocracy to legitimize his authority. With the nation nearly united, the emperor and his minions once again entered the spotlight. Hideyoshi’s clan, however, eventually lost power after his death.

In 1603, Tokugawa Ieyasu was appointed shogun and opened the third and last shogunate (Edo period). His government started out as a military dictatorship, but soon fell into to the trap of gentrification again. By the latter half of the period, high ranking bureaucrats were embarrassed to admit that they were doing such barbarous things as kendo practice. In a diary of a bureaucrat of the time, there is a part where he recounts how his superior told him to say that his bruise was a result of a bad fall. By the end, the officers of the shogunate were court aristocrats with ornamental swords.

Still, there were plenty of tough guys around. The “barbarians” and “rougue men” far from the center of power maintained their martial ways. They trained their children in the ways of the warrior in hopes that someday they would be called to duty and their skills as swordsmen would be useful. They waited more than ten generations, preserving their skills throughout, before an anti-Tokugawa alliance rose up in the wake of Commodore Perry’s forced opening of the country and restored the emperor to power for the third time.

In 1889, the Japanese Imperial Constitution was established, firmly putting the emperor in the role of the constitutional monarch.

What I wanted to say was that Japanese history was a process of repeated gentrification and (…er…what’s the opposite?) relapse into military rule. Or maybe you could call it repeated erection of strong military governments that relapsed into gentrified aristocratic rule. The socially “lower” samurai were constantly trying to legitimize their bloodline once they came to power. That is why they kept inter-breeding with the kugeh. Due to a mix of religion and tradition, the kugeh refused to have anything to do with the lowly business of killing. That does not mean that they never assassinated their own. They just never lead armies. (The life of the kugeh in the 11th century, before the ascent of the samurai, is described in the book “The Tale of Genji” and other works of literature.) Since the aristocracy never held military power, their power increased in times of peace, while when the nation was at war their power decreased. This is in stark contrast to the more martial aristocracy of Europe.

Because there were two ruling classes, the kugeh and the samurai, one which benefited from peace and the other which ascended in times of war, Japan swung like a pendulum between ascetic culture and martial culture. If you look at the time table, you can see that Japan alternated between 150-200 years of continuous peace and 80-100 years of perpetual war. You can argue that Japan was in its last age of war in the century between Commodore Perry (1853) and the San Francisco Peace Treaty (1951). That was after 200 years of absolute peace under Tokugawa rule which followed 100 years of Sengoku period, which followed a relatively brief period of peace under the Muromachi rule for 130 years, which followed a relatively short period of war (about 60 years) between the Mongolian invasion (1274) and the founding of the new shogunate (1336), and so on. War and peace, war and peace.

At this pace Japan will reach its next military era in about 130 years. Until then, politics will become increasingly muddled and the bureaucracy (by some estimates about 98% kugeh) will continue to rule Japan.

Commodore Perry’s Letter

In 1853, Commodore Perry first visited Japan with three warships and the Japanese said “Come back later”. So he came back later with seven warships and the Japanese dropped their self-isolation policy and opened two ports for American ships to refuel and restock. Trade was opened after negotiations with Consulate Harris a while later in 1860.

Sounds like a straight forward story of gunboat diplomacy on the face of it. But in many ways it was a story rich in twists and turns.

Perry’s people had no idea what Japanese government was like. They did not know the word “shogun” for example, and called him “tycoon”. So large foreign ships anchored off the sleepy fishing village of Uraga and the leader asked for the “tycoon”.

After much ado, a letter was delivered to the “tycoon” of what Perry believed was “the Kingdom of Japan”. Behind the ceremony was the most trying ordeal in bureaucratic red tape and government decision making that Americans would never have imagined. The “powdered curls” world of 19th century Congress looked primitively simple by comparison.

As it turned out, the “tycoon” was not the absolute leader of Japan. Every time the Americans asked for an answer, they were told that they were awaiting a response from the “Chotei” in Kyoto. I have no idea how long it took them to figure out that “Chotei” was the honorary term for the Imperial Government.

On every important matter of state, the shogun’s decision needed to be legitimized by the Emperor. Nominally, the shogun was only one of the Emperor’s many subjects, and the Emperor had the power to over rule the shogun. In practice, the most he could do was to chip away at the shogun’s proposals or demand concessions in other areas in a quid pro quo for his endorsement. With the arrival of Perry, the Imperial Government saw an unique opportunity to expand its interests.

In order to accommodate the Emperor’s demands, the council of elders, or cabinet, in the shogunite had to decide who would give up some of his interests. There were hundreds of landed “daimyo” in the government and some thousands of “hatamoto” all of whom had vested interests in the status quo.

Now it is well to remember that at this time the shogun was only a little boy who had no real power of his own, the Emperor was merely a figurehead who spent more time with poetry than politics and both the shogun’s government in Edo (Tokyo) and the Emperor’s government in Kyoto were ridden with factionalism. Every faction was tied to businesses and fortunes that had interests of its own. No two high officials agreed on anything about how to respond to the Americans. And the Americans had no idea who it was that they were talking to. This was definitely not the political sophistication of “Kingdoms” they were accustomed to dealing with.

Lord Mizuno, the highest adviser to the shogun prior to Perry’s visit, had some advance information about the turnout of the Opium War and saw the need to repel the “barbarians”. But he lost his job when he failed to squire land necessary to build fortresses to protect Osaka and Edo harbors. There were simply too many special interests to fight.

Lord Abe succeeded Mizuno and immediately recognized the need to modernize Japan’s defense forces. But he had so few allies in the shogun’s cabinet that he sought advice and foreign intelligence from Lord Shimazu (who monopolized interests in Okinawa), Lord Kuroda and Lord Nabeshima (who governed over Nagasaki, the only port open to foreign trade) all of whom were regional lords of Kyushu who previously had absolutely no right to interfere with matters of state. This was completely unprecedented. He also tried to ally with Lord Mito, a powerful “inner” lord who – although he was technically a regional ruler of what is now Chiba – had much influence in the shogunite and was a major proponent of greater naval buildup. But the alliance did not work out possibly because Lord Abe was seen as something of a “lame duck”.

After long sessions of discussions, the cabinet of the shogunite decided that they would break precedent and accept the letter from the American president, but hand over the reply in Nagasaki. Perry’s answer was that his letter must be accepted by a high officer of the Japanese government and that the answer will be accepted in Edo in the following year. Lord Abe took the proposal to Lord Mito, another unprecedented act, who supported it. The order to accept the letter trickled down the pecking order to the sleepy fishing village where two-bit bureaucrats were given the job of accepting the letter from the President of the United States.

There were many protocols to handling official letters in Japan at the time. Letters to men of high office not only needed to be written in a certain way, in well defined jargon on appropriate paper, but had to be delivered on specific types of trays. There were rules on who was allowed to touch the tray, which officers were to carry it, and who would keep their heads bowed while the tray was being transported in front of them. The Americans knew none of this and expected someone to take the letter by hand.

The two governors of Uraga, who governed in alternating months, both showed up to accept the letter in a hastily propped up tent. Their official titles were translated to English as “Toda, Prince of Idzu” and “Ido, Prince of Iwami” and the Americans were duly pleased that their letter was accepted by two “princes”.

The Satsuma-Anglo War

The Tokugawa Shogunate was a military government of many checks and balances. For example, there were two governments for the district of Edo that ruled the city in alternating months. This was apparently to prevent corruption. The two governments kept watch over each other to make sure the other party was not collecting bribes. There was a lot of redundancies in the government agencies and the samurai got two days off for every three working days.

Most of the so called samurai were on a salary, either from the shogun himself or from the regional lords. But there were people classified as farmers who were allowed to carry swords and have surnames like the samurai. These people owned their own land and kept their own serfs. The shogunite restricted their rights vigilantly but never quite suppressed them. Tokugawa Ieyasu, who founded the shogunate, famously said “never let them die, never let them live”. In the event that the regional lords rebelled against the shogun, there was an option that these independents might ally with the shogun and fight against the lord that ruled over them. (It was never to be. By the time the shogunite waned, the rich farmers often had a stake in their governing lords.)

Another built-in mechanism to divide power and prevent rebellion was called Sankin Koutai. The lords, who kept residences in both Edo and the regions they governed, were required to live in Edo every other year. (They negotiated for less frequent relocations later because of fiscal problems.) Their wives and children were required to remain in Edo all their lives. In effect, the wives and children were the hostages of the shogun. Sons were allowed to travel to the land they will one day rule once they became adult, but daughters were born in Edo and died in Edo. They would marry and travel to another mansion only a few blocks away. They usually never saw the land their husbands ruled.

The lords were required to travel to their respective territory in parades. The idea was to make sure the lords would not amass large stockpiles of money that they may use to finance a war against the shogun. The size of a parade was determined by the lord’s nominal income. The largest fiefdoms were required to have upwards of 20 horsemen, 130 infantrymen and 300 retainers. Lord Maeda of Kaga was the greatest of all lords and the procession counted 2500 people who marched all the way from Edo (which is now Tokyo) to what is now Ishikawa prefecture.

Any attempt to disturb this parade was considered a grave insult and was punishable by death. In fact, commoners were supposed to get on all fours and kowtow until the parade passed. It must have been a major pain if you happened to be travelling and you came across Lord Maeda’s parade. There were people leading each parade who warned nearby residents that a parade was coming. People on horses needed to dismount and people with weapons were required to put their weapons on the ground. If you refused, you were deemed an attacker and were promptly killed. There were plenty of guards available to do so.

In August 1862, just 10 years after Perry’s first visit, three Englishmen and one woman were traveling on horseback in collision course with the parade of Lord Shimazu of Satsuma. These were middle class merchants out on a joy ride. The runners in front of the parade tried to redirect them in a different path, to no avail. A samurai tried to tell them that they could not keep riding, but they paid him no attention. Several warnings later, they were still on horseback with pistols in their belts when they collided with the first guards of the parade. When the procession stopped, Lord Satsuma demanded to know why his honorable parade was not moving. His retainers answered that some armed barbarians had blocked their path. The warlord issued a single word command: “Slice.” The Englishmen were attacked by the Lord’s bodyguards and one of them died. This became known as the Namamugi Incident.

Up to this point, a lot of drunken sailors had got what was coming to them by wielding their pistols in a place where nobody was supposed to draw their weapons. The foreigners were pretty tolerant about the loss of a few trouble makers, but shit really hit the fan at the loss of a “gentleman”.

The Englishmen wanted immediate retaliation, but the moderate Consulate Neal decided to settle for a reparation and the handover of the “criminal”. The shogunate, eager to settle, paid the reparation but Lord Shimazu bulked at the handover.

In June 1863, the British sent seven warships to Kagoshima, capitol of Satsuma and home of Lord Shimazu. By the standards of the era, this was much larger a force than any dispute with an “uncivilized” nation should have called for. Much less a single clan. It was utter overkill, but the samurais of Kagoshima were not intimidated. Negotiations went nowhere. While they were still talking, the British tried to capture a Japanese ship which lead to firing of cannons from the Kagoshima side. The British, armed with superior modern weapons, were highly advantaged. They burned up with their bombardment 5-10 percent of what was Kagoshima city resulting in much material damage. But their landing operation that followed ended in a dismal failure. The samurai of Satsuma, armed with swords and outdated matchlock guns, offered greater resistance than anticipated. The British suffered 63 casualties (13 dead in battle and 7 more to die later from complications of their wounds) before they could make it back to their ships as opposed to 17 (5 of them dead) for Satsuma. Meanwhile, the old fashioned cannons hit the English flagship H.M.S. Euryalus which caught fire, lost the captain and had to cut loose the anchor to escape the bay.
Inspite of everything, the British declared victory and managed to get further reparations from the shogunate. The Japanese call this incident “The Satsuma-Anglo War” while the British call it “The British bombardment of Kagoshima“.

The British never got their “criminal”. The Satsuma people hauled out the anchor the British left behind, but gave it back to the British upon request not realizing what an important booty it was. Few people in the world ever managed to take booty from the Royal Navy in those days.

But it may have been for the best. After this war, Satsuma, which was in the process of forging an alliance with the Emperor to fight the shogun, realized it was unrealistic to keep Japan isolated. They dropped its policy of ousting the “barbarians” and forged an alliance with Britain that lasted until just before WWII. The British found an important market for weaponry and supplied Satsuma with weapons necessary to fight the shogun and continued to provide Japan with modern weapons from this day to the Russo-Japanese war and beyond.

Funny how history turns out.

Samurai Women

During the Second World War, the American war machine made history in employing the power of Hollywood to propagate negative image of their enemy. The results still resonate today.

One of many ideas they successfully spread was the ill treatment of Japanese women at the hands of Japanese men.

American women who have lived in Japan for years still have trouble realizing that the plight of Japanese women was never as bad as advertised. One White woman told me that Japanese women tolerate the infidelities of their husbands because there is nothing they could do about it. They would be economically helpless if they split with their husbands. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is the men who would be helpless without their wives.

A missionary in the 16th century noted that Japanese women chose their sexual partners of their own free will, had the right to instigate divorce, had the right to travel without permission from men, owned property, kept their own money, and even collected interest on loans to their own husbands. Wives were not the property of their husbands but held their own places in society. None of this was even imaginable for the European missionary.

Later on, the Tokugawa Shogunite (Edo period) prohibited female ownership of farmland and commercial real estate but they could still own, buy and sell residential houses. They had right to their own property and if a husband sold off their possessions, it was grounds for divorce. Some women loaned money to their husbands and there are documented cases where the court ruled in favor of the wife who collected the money with interest.

The travel of women were also restricted during the Edo period. “Guns coming in and women going out” were scrutinized carefully. This was basically to prevent insurgence. Regional warlords were required to keep their wives in Edo, the shogun’s capitol. The lords themselves traveled back and forth between their mansions in Edo and their domains in the provinces. Wives and children were effectively hostages of the shogun. To keep these hostages from escaping the city disguised as commoners, every woman was carefully checked. This intruded significantly to the freedoms of commoner women, but that was a side effect of a security policy rather than discrimination of an entire gender.

The samurai, as usual, lived with a different set of rules. Adultery was punishable by death. Absolute chastity was required of the women. This was primarily because if there were any dispute about who was the heir, it would cost lives. In fact there were lots of government bodies devoted to deciding who was the heir of whom and in what order. In the samurai’s world, whose mother you were defined a woman’s position. Whose wife you were counted for less.

Contrary to common belief, Japanese women have always had the right to choose their mates. Japanese women have rejected advances from Emperors since Heian times. Of course, economic conditions defined your rights in those days. Poor people sold off their daughters to brothels until the early 20th century. Many women were obliged to go into unhappy marriages or become mistresses due to economic reasons. But all things being equal, women had the right to reject an undesirable suitor.

The Meiji Restoration brought Western influence into Japan. Laws were written in the image of the French model which took away the right to instigate divorce from women. Also, women were no longer allowed to inherit fortunes. The Imperial government propagated the myth that Japanese women had always valued chastity more than their lives. This was against all documented evidence. Of course there were cases in which faithful wives committed suicide rather than face gang rape by incoming troops, but examples like that do not speak for the whole of society in peace time. Still, many people bought the story and a lot of women were extremely chaste until the fall of the Imperial government after WWII, but a chunk of them were probably people of the samurai lineage who would have been very prude anyway. The morality seeped to other classes by osmosis and the period between the fall of the Tokugawa shogunite and the fall of the Japanese Empire was probably the most sexually restricted time in the history of Japan.

For most of its history, women in Japan had more rights than women elsewhere. There is no doubt that there were plenty of cases in which women were mistreated or taken advantage of, but those things happened in other places as well. You have to put the comparison in the context of the times. It is true that women could not hold many professional jobs until modern times, but some businesses, such as hotels and inns, were traditionally ran by women. In fact the employment status of women was the same or worse in Western countries until well into the 20th century. The literacy rate of women in Japan was always higher than those of Europe or North America for as long as there are records. Western influence has arguably diminished more than enhanced the status of Japanese women until the latter half of the 20th century.

The power dynamic of the sexes were quite different in Japan. Men never opened doors for women and women held umbrellas for men. When walking in couples, women were supposed walk half a step behind her man, never abreast of him. This is why acts of male chauvinism, such as opening doors for women (an imported idea), was confused with feminism (another imported idea), and the word “feminizumu” in Japan often means something entirely different from what Westerners call “feminism”. But women always had control of their own finances and often controlled the finances of their husbands. There were many cases in which the samurai men could not obtain loans but their wives could.

The situation still applies today. Most husbands in Japan today hand over their paychecks to their wives who manage the money and grant small allowances to their husbands for buying cigarettes or paying bus fare and such. The short-lived Socialist Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama, noted as a poor and honest man, demanded that every member of his coalition cabinet disclose the fortunes of themselves and their immediate families to the public. It was meant to enhance his squeaky clean image. He was shocked to find that his wife had amassed a fortune in excess of three million dollars, all quite legally. Such is the financial savvy of Japanese wives.

I can tell you first hand that it is a myth that Japanese women are helpless. I am married to one.

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.

Historical Samurai Drama

NHK is Japan’s equivalent of BBC. It is a non-profit public organization that handles public broadcasting, known most prominently for its lightning fast earthquake warnings and secondly for excellent educational programs and nature documentaries. Drama is not quite their forte. Their fiction programs are generally higher quality than Japanese commercial network programs, but that is not saying much.

Since 1963, it has broadcast single-season, one-off, historical dramas that span, with few exceptions, from January to December, broadcast on Sunday nights from 8pm-9pm. It is an unusually high quality show among a sea of irrelevant and pitiful Japanese TV programming, with only a handful of disappointments. We are now watching the 55th annual historical drama and it is shaping up to be quite a good story.

Of the 55 programs, 19 were set in the Sengoku Period, otherwise known as The Age of War from the late 15th to late 16th centuries, mostly focused on the later part of the Sengoku Period with some crossover to the Azuchi and early Edo Periods. Only one was focused on the late Muromachi to Sengoku Period transition. Judging from the number of dramas being made, the most interesting and entertaining period of samurai history is the period between 1493 and 1603. (Not to mention, most samurai video games seem to be set in the same time period.)

9 programs were set in the early to middle Edo period (1603-1868), which was mostly a period of peace with few dramatic events. However, to be fair, most of NHK’s Friday night and Saturday night historical programs were set in the Edo period, but the stories tended to be about city dwelling commoners rather than about warriors. Friday night and Saturday night costume dramas (which moved time frames frequently and occupied the Wednesday slot for a while) were often good quality but was never up to par with the Sunday night dramas which remain the crown jewel of NHK programming.

13 of the Sunday night dramas were set in the waning days of the Tokugawa shogunite, the end of the Edo Period period known as Bakumatsu (1858-1868) with some crossover into the Meiji era. This seems to be the second most popular era for samurai drama. It spans the time between the arrival of Commodore Perry to the fall of the Tokugawa government. It often crosses over to the early Meiji Era including such events as the Satsuma Rebellion.

Most other parts of Japanese history are given little attention. The period surrounding the famed conflict between the Heike and Genji has been dramatized five times. The Heian Period, the time period of the famous movie Rashomon, was the subject only twice. (Although that may not count as samurai stories because the samurai class was not established in those days.) One program focused on the Mongol Invasion, one on the Ryukyu Kingdom, one on the Imperial Schizm, one on the later Meiji Period, one on Post WWII Japan, and one drama series on Japanese immigrants in North America starring Toshiro Mifune as one of the immigrants.

The drama that won the highest ratings of all time was Dokuganryu Masamune (1987) starring (at the time untested) Ken Watanabe as Date Masamune, a one-eyed samurai who was one of the maverick warriors of the Sengoku Period. Watanabe pulled off the part brilliantly, shooting him into a glorious career.

So most of the dramas focus on either the Sengoku Period, the period of war just before the lengthy peacetime of the Edo period, and the Bakumatsu Period, the period of killing and confusion just after the Edo period. This Sengoku-to-Bakumatsu time span is what we have been most closely associating with Japanese costume drama for the past half century.

This is just the breakdown of one TV slot, but it reflects the popularity of samurai stories in general. Big epic sagas involving multiple story lines and numerous characters amid tidal currents of historic events are usually set in either the Sengoku Period or the Bakumatsu era, while small scale light entertainment involving fewer characters in simpler story structures tend to set the stage in the peaceful Edo Period.

Literary types still regard the stories surrounding the Genpei Wars, the series of conflicts between the Heike clan and the Genji clan (1180-1185), as the representative examples Japanese costume drama, but that view seems to be dated. The Genpei Wars was what the samurai of the Edo Period enjoyed reading about.

So in order to write a samurai story, you should set your stage carefully, choosing the right historical period for the story you want to write. James Clavell’s Shogun is set in the late Sengoku Period. Times of great turmoil makes for great stories about warriors.

Come to think of it, something feels familiar about this. Let me see. Japan enjoyed peace and stability for over a century under the benign Muromachi Shogunate, but due to the selfishness and apathy of the ruling elite, the government collapsed and all the regional lords began to fight for supremacy in a no-holds-barred battle royale called the Age of War ( the Sengoku period) until power became concentrated in a handful of winners who fought the final end-game until the nation was united under one banner, the Tokugawa shogunate. A period of peace lasted over two hundred years, during which the rulers became complacent to the evil threat from over seas and were overthrown by a renegade band of modernists who would adopt foreign technology, build a modernized army, fight the shogun, and create a new nation in order to repel the foreign colonizers intent on turning the country into a decadent hive of opium addicts. The dissenters win again, but this time reinstating the emperor as head of state. Does that sound vaguely like the history of the Jedi’s galaxy to you? An alternating history of Dark Times and the Republic? And the drama is always set in the transition era between the dark times and the good times.

This is actually not a coincidence, as this YouTube clip explains. George Lucas is a big fan of Japanese costume drama, jidai-geki, which is where the word “Jedi” came from. And the underlying theme of almost all Japanese period fiction is yonaoshi, literally “world fixing”, the quest to restore a damaged world. The biggest epics are about the fall and rise of the shogun’s rule, or the emperor’s rule, or even the regional lord’s rule. Lucas must have figured it out and adopted it into the triple trilogy of Star Wars.

It is not entirely unique to Japanese historical drama. You can find similar composition in Lord of the Rings, only not as pronounced.

Historical drama has a way of focusing on the pinch points of history. Nobody cares about what happened ten years before the American Independence or what people were doing in Europe during the Belle Epoch. We want to see what was happening when empires and dictatorships rise and fall. That is where the stories are. The same can be said of samurai fiction.