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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 a hundred years. Yet, as he puts it, “the No drama flourished, and the Buddhist monasteries were bastions of culture, especially with respect to the reading and writing of Chinese.”

If the rain is to fall, let it fall; / If the wind is to blow, let it blow.” The lines are from a poem by the Kyoto priest, Ikkyu (1394-1481), the first of the twenty-one writers whose portraits are sketched by Professor Keene. The poem, expressing such admirable indifference to the wind and the rain, has a characteristic Zen savor. This does not imply a saintly detachment from mundane passions, the ascetic withdrawal from the world accepted as an ideal by the monastic orders of Christendom. Ikkyu was a lover of both women and boys. At the age of seventy-six he fell in love with a blind woman; the experience prompted him to write some moving poems. “After the tree withered and the leaves had fallen, spring returned; / The old trunk has flowered, old promises are renewed.”

Such poems were written in Chinese. They are not easily translated into euphonious English. Professor Keene, however, is an acknowledged master of this difficult art. He is no less felicitous when rendering into English the spare words of the Japanése haiku, which is certainly among the most daunting tasks that a translator can be called upon to perform. Professor Keene’s skill in this field will be readily appreciated by the specialist reader, for Some Japanese Portraits includes at the end of the book the original texts of the poems and quotations cited in the main body of the work. (This is an unusual and, for the scholar, most welcome appendix.)

* *

Human life is truly a short affair. It is better to live doing the things that you like. It is foolish to live within this dream of a world seeing unpleasantness and doing only things that you do not like. But it is important never to tell this to young people as it is something that would be harmful if incorrectly understood.

At first sight that passage, with its distinctly hedonistic flavor, would scarcely seem appropriate in a work that has been generally recognized as a classic of Japanese warrior thought. No wonder there is that caveat in the final sentence. The author of those sentiments was a samurai who became a Buddhist priest on the death of his liege-lord, since the old practice of junshi—ritual suicide by disembowelment to follow one’s master in death—had been sternly prohibited by the shogunate. The samurai-turned-priest, Tsunetomo Yamamoto, retired to a hermitage. He had evidently acquired a solid reputation as a kind of sage, for a young warrior, Tashiro Tsuramoto, visited him and took down his utterances over a period of seven years, arranging them in a book called Hagakure (“Hidden by the Leaves”). This was in 1716, three years before Yamamoto’s death at the age of sixty-one.

William Scott Wilson has translated about a quarter of Hagakure, the core of the book. One is not surprised to learn that he enjoyed the works of Mishima, who himself published an Introduction to Hagakure. Mishima, of course, by his seppuku or hara-kiri in 1970 brought the world of Hagakure into the second half of the twentieth century. His self-immolation was bound to revive interest in attitudes and ideals which most people, including most Japanese, considered safely buried in the past.

Not only death but, more important perhaps, the manner of death obsessed the self-respecting samurai. He was trained, after all, from an early age in the proper use of the two swords that marked his manhood, the shorter weapon, the dirk, being the instrument of suicide. Whatever can be said for the samurai code—and courage must always command respect—the modern reader is bound to feel repelled in some degree by this cult of the sword, with its implications of uncompromising violence and bloodshed. I put this to Mishima himself when he was on a visit to Oxford some twenty years ago. “I am bound to admit,” he replied in his idiomatic English, “that I am attracted to this tradition.” There was no hint of pride in that statement (or in the “introduction” he wrote). Rather, it struck me as the surprisingly honest confession of a seemingly cosmopolitan artist. Clearly, prominent among the ancestral voices talking to his soul must have been that of Tsunetomo Yamamoto.

There was nothing particularly new about Hagakure, so far as its basic ethical principles were concerned. In drawing on the warrior code it reemphasized ideals that had been made explicit on many occasions in earlier centuries. One might call Hagakure a “booster shot” in the arm for the samurai class, a reinoculation against the debilitating effects of peacetime existence. Another feature of the work is its narrow provincialism. For the author was first and last a loyal retainer of the Nabeshima fief in Kyushu. He tells us, for example, that no very special reverence is due to either Confucius or the Buddha, since neither of these figures was a retainer of the Nabeshima House.

On the other hand Hagakure, as Dr. Scott Wilson’s translation illuminates in vivid fashion, is marked by a style that is poetic as well as robust. We are treated to a feast of aphorisms and martial anecdotes. “Scholars and their like are men who with wit and speech hide their own true cowardice and greed.” A trifle harsh, maybe, but who could successfully challenge its essential truth in any age? “People will become your enemies if you become eminent too quickly in your life…. Rising slowly in the world, people will be your allies and your happiness will be assured.” (There is something eternally Japanese in that admonition.) “Tether even a roasted chicken.” In Hagakure the maxims crowd every page; and one feels that the effect upon a young and impressionable eighteenth-century reader was to turn him into a courageous prig. Yet that thought will seem flippant and unfair when one considers the following passage:

Every day when one’s body and mind are at peace, one should meditate upon being ripped apart by arrows, rifles, spears and swords, being carried away by surging waves, being thrown into the midst of a great fire, being struck by lightning, being shaken to death by a great earthquake, falling from thousand-foot cliffs, dying of disease or committing seppuku at the death of one’s master. And every day without fail one should consider himself as dead.

To live up to that kind of code requires something more than self-esteem and a touchy sense of personal honor.

How many warriors in fact did live up to the code? To this there can be no satisfactory answer. What I think we can be sure of is that those (possibly the majority of samurai?) who could not achieve such standards were, nevertheless, unable to deny their excellence. A moral elite set an example for the entire samurai class, and that class tried to set an example for Japanese society as a whole.

But there was much more to life in traditional Japan than the preceding paragraph might imply. Professor Keene’s Portraits make this very plain. It is a relief to discover that most of the humorous fiction of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was written by samurai. “They justified their taste for frivolity,” says Professor Keene, “by asserting that they were following the tradition of Chinese gentlemen who were able, thanks to their indulgence in women and wine, to scale the heights of poetry.” Such books lacked intellectual content, being mainly descriptions of the manners, clothes, and discourse of the customers and inhabitants of the famous pleasure quarters of Kyoto and Yedo. This type of fiction was on the whole non-erotic and tended to be light-hearted and gossipy. But a writer, especially perhaps of the samurai class, ran some risk of arrest if his work was deemed indecent. And after the “opening of Japan” in the 1850s many of those who advocated Westernization took a puritanical view of any publications considered likely to provoke lewd thoughts. For example, a broadsheet produced by one of these Westernizers was entitled: “Ten Ways to Burn and Destroy Lascivious Books.”

That remarkable transformation, the Meiji Restoration of 1868, can be described as an upper-class revolution, in which the samurai overthrew the samurai. For, as every student of Japanese history knows, it was a coalition of warriors, mostly young and of relatively modest rank, that pushed and bullied the four classes of Tokugawa society—samurai, farmers, artisans, and merchants—into the modern world. This was not achieved without a great deal of domestic strife. In the end, of course, the retainer’s loyalty to his lord was transferred to the Emperor Meiji, now installed in the shogun’s historic castle in Yedo/Tokyo. But it has been a Japanese quirk that one may resist the Son of Heaven, since His command, being the product of advice by evil or foolish counselors, may not represent His true will. Thus the way of rebellion may be the path of true loyalty. A lot depends, of course, on the outcome of the rebellion; as the Japanese saying goes, “If you win, you are the Emperor’s army.”

So the diehards took to arms more than once in defense of the old order during the first heady, unsettling years of modernization; the most serious uprising being the Saigo Rebellion of 1877, which was a civil war in miniature, set in Kyushu. Yet the kind of resentment that lay behind explosions of this sort could be sublimated, drained of its poison so to speak, through poetical expression. One of Professor Keene’s later “portraits” is that of Onuma Chinzan (1818-1891), who illustrates in his verse this particular trend. He has praise, for instance, in one of his poems for samurai wives who have become courtesans in Yoshiwara in order to support their indigent families. And he has a poem about a retainer of the shogunate who becomes a ricksha puller:

When I left my house I rode in a chair or on horseback,
Proud to be a samurai of high rank.
Today I have forgotten all that:
I gladly carry a merchant in my ricksha.

What course, one wonders, would the author of Hagakure have taken in response to the vast changes imposed by the Meiji government? Would he have been, like many erstwhile barbarian-haters, a keen convert to the techniques of the West, embracing the new medium, the alphabet, “the crab-writing that crawls sideways?” Or would he have accepted an honest but menial job, like that of the ricksha puller? Or, again, would he perhaps have risen in hopeless revolt, pitting his sword against the rifles of the new Meiji army?

His sword, at least, would have kept its edge, whatever its fate after 1868, and whether or not it had ever been drawn in anger from its scabbard. For it might be argued that the peaceful years of the Tokugawa era (1603-1867) were, paradoxically enough, the great age of the sword; not in technical excellence—the best swords were made by smiths of an earlier period—but because its main rival as a weapon, namely the gun, fell into disuse.

That particular development, the turning away from the use of guns during the Tokugawa era, is the theme of the interesting study by Professor Noel Perrin, Giving Up the Gun. Readers who may have enjoyed that classic among Japanese movies, The Seven Samurai, will recall the great importance that was attached to the capture of one of the enemy’s guns; for the long muskets, originally a Portuguese import of the sixteenth century, could be used with devastating effect, rendering defenseless the bravest opponent armed only with sword, bow, or spear. The value of the musket was appreciated the moment the first Portuguese arquebus was seen on Japanese soil. This was in 1543, when a Chinese vessel anchored in the southern bay of the island of Tanegashima some twenty miles below Kyushu. Of the three Portuguese on board, two carried guns. When the local Daimyo saw one of the Portuguese take aim and shoot a duck, “the gun” (in Professor Perrin’s words) “enters Japanese history.”

There is a well-known story that this percipient baron bought the two guns, at an exorbitant price, and then ordered the best swordsmith on Tanegashima to make copies of them; but unfortunately this craftsman failed at first in his efforts to reproduce the breech spring mechanism. Accordingly he gave his seventeen-year-old daughter to the captain of a Portuguese ship that arrived some months later, in return for lessons in the gunsmith’s art from the ship’s armorer. It is a not unlikely story, given the climate of the times. Professor Perrin, however, feels unable to vouch for its truth.

At any rate, “Tanegashima” passed into the Japanese language, serving for many years as a virtual synonym of teppo, “gun.” Its use rapidly spread; and indeed the unification of Japan in the sixteenth century following several decades of civil war may be ascribed in part to the skillful employment of the weapon by those who emerged triumphant in the end. Thousands of soldiers were armed with Japanese-made muskets in these battles—more indeed than on the battlefields of Western Europe during the same period.

Professor Perrin’s thesis is that once domestic peace had been firmly secured, and the country set in the mold forged by the Tokugawa shogunate, there was a “reversion to the sword.” In other words, Japan turned away from firearms, the only nation ever to have done so. Indeed, the last occasion, until the nineteenth century, on which firearms were used in Japan was the Shimabara Rebellion of 1637 (a rising by Christian samurai in Kyushu). By the end of the seventeenth century, it seems, the art of the gunsmith in Japan was virtually extinct.

Generations of peace, national isolation, together perhaps with a feeling that “firearms were getting out of hand,” were good reasons for “giving up the gun.” Professor Perrin makes a great deal of this turning back of technology; and he concludes his study with the claim that the Japanese experience proves two things:

First, that a no-growth economy is perfectly compatible with prosperous and civilized life. And second, that human beings are less the passive victims of their own knowledge and skills than most men in the West suppose.

This is certainly a new way of looking at the world of the warrior in Tokugawa Japan, and one that must greatly appeal to ecologists, “Friends of the Earth,” and others who question technological advance.

But a “turning back of technology” in Japan also occurred about thirty years ago, with the introduction of the postwar constitution. For if Article 9 of that document means anything it implies a permanent refusal to equip the nation with the sophisticated instruments of war thought desirable, if not essential, by the great powers of the world. In this sense one might say that the 1946 constitution carries a message of hope for humanity; and this is something in which the Japanese can take pride.

The changes in Japan during the last three hundred years offer a strange but impressive spectacle: from chronic domestic warfare to prolonged peace; and then from peace rudely shattered by the outside world to war again, nearly all of it on foreign soil; finally back to peace again. Throughout the greater part of that period the center of the stage is occupied by the samurai, even if he has occasionally to share it, so far as the arts are concerned, with representatives of other classes. Administrator, poet, sage, and fighting man—the samurai is all these, becoming, as the modern era dawns, policeman, politician, banker, teacher, rebel, and ricksha-man. By contrast with much else that has been written, the three books under review illuminate the glories and miseries of a gentleman’s life in old and not-so-old Japan, a life that is bound to remain contradictory and puzzling to most readers in the West.

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