Cult of the Sword

Some Japanese Portraits

by Donald Keene
Kodansha International, 228 pp., $15.00

Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai

by Tsunetomo Yamamoto, translated by William Scott Wilson
Kodansha International, 142 pp., $9.95

Giving Up the Gun: Japan's Reversion to the Sword, 1543-1879

by Noel Perrin
David R. Godine, 136 pp., $8.95

Gentleman and roughneck—the Japanese warriors of the feudal age can appear in either guise. On the one hand we observe fine feeling, good breeding, and taste; on the other there is the implacable readiness of the samurai to inflict violent death on others, as well as on himself, for what often appear to be trivial reasons. Death, indeed, preoccupied the soul of the samurai throughout his waking hours. And one cliché of the Japanese of the old school is to liken their cherry blossoms to the true samurai. For the indigenous ornamental cherry of Japan, unlike varieties developed in other lands, loses all its petals at the very first gust of wind. There is no hesitation. For the blossom, pink or white, death is “lighter than a feather.” So it was for the samurai. In time of war he embraced the thought expressed by the sixteenth-century warrior Uesugi Kenshin: “Engage in combat fully determined to die and you will be alive; wish to survive in the battle and you will surely meet death.” Yet for more than two hundred years, from the first half of the seventeenth century to the middle years of the nineteenth, there was no call to arms. The long Tokugawa peace transformed the fighting man into an armed mandarin, a member of a strictly nonproductive, self-perpetuating bureaucracy.

In such circumstances the pen (or in the Japanese case the brush) is likely to be more potent than the sword. This leads to civility, meaning the arts of peace. In the absence of alarums the warrior, it might be thought, will hang his weapons on the wall. This did not happen in Japan, at least not on a really significant scale. Armor and helmets, it is true, tended to become more decorative than useful. A number of Daimyo—provincial lords—bred heirs who failed to live up to the austere martial standards of their forebears. The English scholar-diplomat Ernest Satow, describing the situation in the 1860s, asserted that many of these barons had become “imbecile puppets.” Osaka and Yedo (the modern Tokyo) certainly included among their citizens a number of ex-samurai, men who had exchanged the sword for the abacus, not to mention “warriors” wholly devoted to drink and venery. But the fact remains that the samurai class as a whole maintained both its cohesion and its essentially military spirit throughout two centuries of domestic peace, during which the preponderance of economic power was grasped by the city merchants.

In other words, class traditions in Japan, like so much else in Japanese culture, displayed a remarkable vitality. And if the martial spirit did not die out during the long years of peace, it is equally true that the appalling disasters of earlier periods, when the country was torn by civil war, could not extinguish the practice of the arts. The late fifteenth century, for example, brought vast destruction upon Kyoto. Professor Donald Keene, in Some Japanese Portraits, tells us that the city did not fully recover for more than…

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