Samurai and Ethics

As the country entered an enduring phase of stability and peace, without even any real foreign threat, warriors became superfluous. There were a number of peasant uprisings to put down, their lords’ honour to uphold, and a bit of policing, but little work for real warriors. Instead, they became bureaucrats and administrators. Their battles became mere paper wars.

These men who occupied the top class in the social order were acutely embarrassed by their almost parasitic life. They seized the least chance for real action to prove their valour, and they went to almost absurd lengths to justify their existence. As a rather ironic result, it was during this age of the redundant samurai that some of the clearest expressions of the samurai ideal, bushid (‘way of the warrior’), were to emerge.

Every Japanese knows the story of the Forty-Seven Rnin. A rnin (wanderer) was a samurai made masterless either by dismissal or by the execution or demotion of his lord. There were quite a few of them in Tokugawa Japan who roamed the countryside causing trouble for villagers and disquiet for the authorities. The forty-seven in question, however, are seen as the embodiment of samurai virtue.

In 1701 their lord, Asano Naganori (1665–1701) of Ak in Harima (Hygo Prefecture) had been insulted by Kira Yoshinaka (1641–1703), the shgun’s chief of protocol. Asano had drawn his sword in the shgun’s castle – a capital offence. He was made to commit seppuku, and his domain was confiscated from his family. Forty-seven of his now masterless samurai retainers vowed to avenge his death by killing Kira. They hid their intent for two years, pretending to lead a life of dissipation, then attacked and killed Kira in an unguarded moment, placing his severed head on their lord’s grave.

Though their behaviour was considered exemplary bushid they were nonetheless ordered to kill themselves for having taken the law into their own hands. Amidst scholarly discussion and public controversy they killed themselves in a mass seppuku. Their graves at Sengakuji Temple in Tky are now a major tourist attraction.

Descriptions of bushid from this period that are still popular today include Hagakure (In the Shadow of Leaves) of 1716 and Gorin no Sho (The Five Rings) of around 1643. However, one of the most interesting was written by Yamaga Sok (1622–85), who was himself a rnin. He had also been a teacher of one of the Forty-Seven Rnin.

Yamaga was perhaps the first to see bushid as a comprehensive philosophy.26 In his various writings he stressed aspects of it such as loyalty and self-discipline, as well as the importance of learning and cultivation of the arts and the rounded development of the whole man. Knowing one’s role in life, and knowing how to properly conduct relations with others, are particularly stressed. But he also struck a defensive note in his justification of the samurai’s apparent lack of functional usefulness to the society of the day. Yamaga argued that the samurai’s freedom from occupation proper allowed him to concentrate on perfecting his moral virtue and thus to serve as a model for the rest of society, disciplining the imperfect if necessary:27

The samurai dispenses with the business of the farmer, artisan, and merchant, and confines himself to practising this Way; should there be someone in the three classes of the common people who transgresses against these moral principles, the samurai summarily punishes him and thus upholds proper moral principles in the land.

There is here a reference to morality, but it is a different morality from the western concept. It is still not a question of good and evil, but of doing the expected thing in the context of social relations and orderliness. Step out of line, and one is summarily punished.

Yamaga’s account also has a heavy Confucian tone. Confucianists were very much concerned with knowing one’s place, honouring relationships, respecting order, and doing one’s duty. Because of these values, Confucianism was revived and promoted by the Tokugawa shgunate. In some aspects, however, it was modified to suit Japan. For example, Chinese Confucianism allowed for showing loyalty to conscience, but in Japan this became narrowed to loyalty to one’s superior. A Confucian adviser to the shgun was appointed, and a Confucian college was founded in Edo with shgunal support. The period produced many noted Confucian scholars, such as Hayashi Razan (1583–1657), Yamazaki Ansai (1618–82), Arai Hakuseki (1657–1725), and Ogy Sorai (1666–1728).

One major influence of Confucianism was on gender perceptions and by extension sexual relations. Texts such as Onna Daigaku (Great Learning for Women) of 1716 preached the ‘five infirmities’ of women – indocility, discontent, slander, jealousy, and silliness – and placed them in a greatly inferior position to men. Onna Daigaku observed that:28 ‘Without any doubt, these five infirmities are found in seven or eight out of every ten women, and it is from these that arises the inferiority of women to men.’ This lowly view of women was one reason why so many – if not most – samurai preferred homosexual relationships.29 Moreover, according to the sometimes-followed Chinese philosophy of yin and yang, too much association with the female yin could seriously weaken the male yang.

Confucianists and the shgunate did not really approve of homosexuality, but turned a blind eye to it. The shgunate was particularly prepared to be tolerant because in Japan’s case physical male homosexuality invariably reflected social rank, with the active partner always the senior.30

Confucianism was not always good for the shgunate. One of its ironies was that it encouraged ideas of merit and learning. This was allowed for in concepts of hierarchy and rank in China, which permitted some mobility on the basis of learning and meritorious achievement, and in later centuries this was also to some extent to be allowed for in Japan. However, encouragement of merit and learning did not necessarily work in the best interests of the Tokugawa shgunate and its policy of unquestioning orthodoxy and stability. Over time rather more critical and questioning attitudes emerged in some quarters than the shgunate wanted – though this should not be overstated, for obedience was still the norm.

The children of samurai and nobles were educated at home or at special domain schools, and wealthy merchants also set up private schools. Increasingly the children of other classes had the opportunity to study at small schools known as terakoya (literally ‘temple-child building’). These were originally set up under the auspices of village temples but soon spread to the towns. Tuition was usually very cheap or free, since the teacher was often a priest who taught as an act of benevolence or a samurai who taught for a sense of self-worth. As a result of this widespread education the literacy rate in the later part of the period is estimated to have been 45 per cent for males and 15 per cent for females, giving an overall rate of 30 per cent. This was arguably the highest in the world at the time. It set an enduring trend, for Japan still has the highest literacy rate in the world at 99 per cent.

Another point of Confucianist irony was that its encouragement of obedience to the ruler inevitably raised the question of who exactly the ruler was. It did not escape the notice of an increasingly educated population that in China the ruler was the emperor. This effectively meant the shgun could be seen as a usurper.

Doubts about the shgunate intensified from the 1700s with the revival of Shint, and early texts associated with it such as the Kojiki. Shintand the Kojiki were seen as something purely Japanese, and became part of kokugaku (‘national learning’). In some ways this was a continuation of the emergence of national consciousness, prodded by the occasional reminder of the outside world in the form of castaways, or foreign ships seeking reprovisioning rights or similar. It was also an expression of a feeling that Japan was a little too Chinese. Kokugaku scholars included such figures as Motoori Norinaga (1730–1801) and Hirata Atsutane (1776–1843). Motoori produced an annotated version of the Kojiki and was openly critical of things Chinese. Hirata argued the superiority of Shintand Japan and was to be part-inspiration for later Japanese nationalism and imperialism.

The idealisation of the way of the samurai, the revival of Confucianism, the spread of education, and the emergence of nationalism were all to play a part in the formation of modern Japan. So too, of course, did the conformism and orthodoxy that formed their setting.


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