The Samurai of Japan: and their Ideal
THE Samurai of Japan afford another instance of the part played by the Uranian love in a nation’s life, and of its importance; and what we know of their institutions resembles in many respects those of the Dorian Greeks which we have just described. This Order of Knighthood, as it may be called, was the ruling element of Japanese life during six or seven centuries, from 1200 A.D. onwards; and it was only in 1870 or so, with the introduction of the new Constitution, that it was dissolved–though its code of personal honour and of social service, under the name Bushido, still has a large, almost a national, following.
Of late years much has been written about the Samurai; and their high tradition of chivalry, their spartan simplicity of life, their bravery, their loyalty, and dedication to the service of their country and its Mikado, are matters of common knowledge.
Lafcadio Hearn, in his Japan: an Interpretation (p. 264, et seq.), tells us that, in the period we are speaking of, Japan, emerging from an earlier and looser tribal state, “was still but a great aggregate of clans and sub-clans kept together by military coercion. At the head of this vast aggregate was the Heavenly Sovereign, the Living God of the race–Priest-Emperor and Pontiff Supreme–representing the oldest dynasty in the world. Next to him stood the Kugé, or ancient nobility, descendants of emperors and of gods. . . Next to the Kugé ranked the Buké, or military class. But the difference in most cases between the lords and the warriors of the Buké was a difference of rank based upon income and title: all alike were Samurai.” He further explains that–“In early times the head of the military class was appointed by the Emperor, only as a temporary Commander-in-chief; afterwards these commanders-in-chief, by usurpation of power, made their office hereditary, and became veritable Imperatores in the Roman sense. Their title of Shogun is well-known to Western readers. The Shogun ruled over between two and three hundred lords (Daimyo: plural) of provinces or districts, whose powers and privileges varied according to income and grade. . . . Before that time each lord exercised supreme rule over his own domain; and it is not surprising that the Jesuit missionaries, as well as the early Dutch and English traders, should have called the Daimyo ‘Kings.’ . . The great Daimyo had their greater and lesser vassals; and each of these again had his force of trained Samurai or fighting gentry.” There was also a particular class of soldier-farmers called Goshi–something like our yeomen.
Thus with the various grades and ranks of Samurai their total number was about two millions, and they were exempted from taxation and privileged each to wear two swords. “Such in brief outline was the general ordination of those noble and military classes by whom the nation was ruled with great severity. The bulk of the common people were divided into three classes: farmers, artisans, and merchants.”
In the book, Bushido, the Soul of Japan, 1 by Inazo Nitobe, which during the last ten years has had a large circulation, an interesting account is given of the moral and social ideal of these Samurai. The author explains that Bu-shi or Bu-ké means Fighting Knight; and so Bushido means literally Military-Knight ways–the ways that fighting nobles should observe in their daily life as well as in their vocation; in a word, the “Precepts of Knighthood,” the noblesse oblige of the warrior class. . . . . “Bushido, then,” he continues, “is the code of moral principles which the knights were required or instructed to observe. It is not a written code; at best, it consists of a few maxims handed down from mouth to mouth, or coming from the pen of some well-known warrior or savant. . . . It was founded not on the creation of one brain, however able, or on the life of a single personage, however renowned. It was an organic growth of decades and centuries of military career. . . . As in England the political institutions of feudalism may be said to date from the Norman Conquest, so we may say that in Japan its rise was simultaneous with the ascendancy of Yoritomo, late in the 12th century. As, however, in England we find the social elements of feudalism far back in the period previous to William the Conqueror, so, too, the germs of feudalism in Japan had been long existent before the period I have mentioned. . . . Coming to possess great honour and great privileges, and correspondingly great responsibilities, they, the Fighting Knights, soon felt the need of a common standard of behaviour, especially as they were always on a belligerent footing and belonged to different clans.”
Mr. Inazo Nitobe then goes on to report, in some detail, this common standard of conduct which inspired the Samurai; and it need hardly be said that he describes it as of fine and heroic quality. Rectitude, justice, courage, endurance, and absolute readiness to die for duty–these were virtues inculcated from childhood onwards with a kind of Spartan insistence. “To rush into the thick of battle and be slain in it, is easy enough, and a common churl is equal to that task; but to live when it is right to live, and to die only when it is right to die–that is true courage. What Samurai youth has not heard of ‘Great Valor’ and of the ‘Valor of a Villein!'”
Simplicity of life again, and contempt of money; the high sense of honour which prompted “Happy Dispatch,” or Harakiri, rather than suffer the least disgrace; these were all characteristics which relate them to the early Spartans. For the Samurai commerce and the vulgar seeking of gain was forbidden. Only in the form of farming was anything of the kind allowed. Yet with all this sternness of life the finer arts were not neglected. As the older people, the Dorians, had their music and dancing and poetry, and their contests of wit, which were specially encouraged among the young folk, so it was with the Samurai. “In the principality of Satsuma, noted for its martial spirit and education, the custom prevailed for young men to practise music; not the blast of trumpets, or the beat of drums, but sad and tender melodies on the biwa, soothing our fiery spirits and drawing our thoughts away from scent of blood and scenes of carnage. Polybius tells us of the Constitution of Arcadia, which required all youths under thirty to practise music, in order that this gentle art might alleviate the rigors of the inclement region. It is to its influence that he attributes the absence of cruelty in that part of the Arcadian mountains.”
In this connection it may be mentioned that Mr. Lowes Dickinson, in a letter from Japan (Manchester Guardian, 12th Sept., 1913), insists upon the remarkable combination of the masculine and the feminine in the Japanese character–of the sensitiveness to beauty with heroic endurance and courage. He says:–“Northerners, and Anglo-Saxons in particular, have always at the back of their minds a notion that there is something effeminate about the sense for beauty . . . but history gives the lie to this complacent theory. No nations were ever more virile than the Greeks or Italians: they have left a mark on the world which will endure when Anglo-Saxon civilisation is forgotten. And none have been, or are, more virile than the Japanese. That they have also the delicacy of women does not alter the fact.”
The author of Bushido also points out that among the Japanese Fighting Knights the study of letters and poetry was common. “Everybody of any education was either a poet or a poetaster. Not infrequently a marching soldier might be seen to halt, take his writing utensils from his belt, and compose an ode–and such papers were found afterwards in the helmets or the breastplates when these were removed from their lifeless wearers.”
How all these details–and among them the inculcation of good manners, and of mercy to the weak or distressed, must not be forgotten–remind us of our own period of chivalry in the West! Truly Mr. Inazo Nitobe has given us an interesting picture; and if, as one seems to find, the picture is all lights and no shadows, doubtless this is because he is painting the ideal of the case rather than the actuality. For the latter, or for phases of the latter, Mitford’s Tales of Old Japan should, of course, be consulted. What the author of Bushido impresses on us with great force is that this ideal became the root of Japanese life. As the figure of the gentle-man, the perfect knight sans peur et sans reproche emerged from our Feudal era, so the ideal of Bushido emerged from the feudal era of Japan. “What Japan was she owed to the Samurai; they were not only the flower of the nation, but the root as well . . . the innumerable avenues of popular amusement and instruction– the theatres, the story-tellers’ booths, the preachers’ dais, the musical recitations, the novels–have taken for their chief theme the stories of the Samurai. The peasants round the open fire in their huts never tire of repeating the achievements of Yoshitsune 1 and his faithful retainer Benkei, or of the two brave Soga brothers; the dusky urchins listen with gaping mouths until the last stick burns out and the fire dies in its embers, still leaving their hearts aglow with the tale that is told. . . Samurai grew to be the beau-idéal of the whole race. ‘As among flowers the cherry is queen, so among men the Samurai is lord.’ Debarred from commercial pursuits the military class itself did not aid commerce; but there was no channel of human activity, no avenue of thought, which did not receive in some measure an impetus from Bushido. Intellectual and moral Japan was directly or indirectly the work of knighthood.”
There is only one fault to be found with this charmingly written book of Inazo Nitobe’s–but it is a serious one. He tells us that Bushido was the root of Japanese social life, but he does not tell us what was the root of Bushido. The Samurai ideal is a noble one, but, in his account of it, it is something up in the air–it does not touch the ground anywhere. In no passage does he tell us from what great human emotion it sprang, or what it was that through all those centuries held the elements of Bushido together. He indicates (see pp. 7 and 123) that its source was not in religion, for though Shintoism played a large part in Bushido, Mr. Nitobe regards religion as only one of its elements; and so we are left in doubt as to where the ideal really rooted.
And yet there ought not to be any doubt. We have seen in the Dorian Chivalry that whatever elements of religion, of morality, of patriotism there were about it, they were brought to a focus by the personal relation–in that case the love of a man for the youth that fought at his side; or rather their mutual love for each other. It was love that gave life and actuality to the ideal–for the youth to see the glory of Knighthood in the man, for the man to train the youth into an embodiment of his vision. And in the Chivalry of Mediaeval Europe it was much the same: only there the love was that of a Knight for his Lady–or their mutual love of each other; the lady to hold out an image and a symbol of perfection, and the knight to make himself worthy at every point of the light in his lady’s eyes–for her sake to care more for his honour than his life. Probably wherever there has been a great and inspiring ideal of this kind actually moving among a people, there has lain at or very near the root of it that wonderful thing, human love; so individual, so human, and yet so close and vital to the very soul of the race.
Certainly it was so among the Samurai of Japan. The love and devotion of the retainer towards his lord runs like a golden thread through the history of that land; and how intensely personal that devotion might be is illustrated by scores of stories, like the story of the Forty-seven Ronins, or that above mentioned of Yoshitsune and Benkei. But beyond that, and perhaps even deeper and more personal, runs the love between comrades of the same grade, generally but not necessarily an elder and a younger. And here certainly is a point of close resemblance between the chivalry of the Samurai and the chivalry of the Dorians. It was not so much the fair lady of his dreams, or even the wife and family at home, that formed the rallying point of the Samurai’s heroism and loyalty, but the younger comrade whom he loved and who was his companion-at-arms. In Mitford’s Tales of Old Japan this motive shows but slightly. But in the case of that book–excellent as it is in its way–it is easy to see from the mode of its production, the tales being selected for British consumption and more or less re-cast, of course, in the telling, that the theme which interests us here is comparatively neglected. One must go to the Japanese authors and storytellers themselves–as I shall do presently–to show the matter in its true light.
Mr. Suyewo-Iwaya, of Tokio, in an article on Comrade-Love in Japan, says 1:–“From 1200 A.D. onwards the Samurai became prominent in Japan. To them it seemed more manly and heroic that men should love men and consort with them, than to give themselves over to women. For several centuries this view had sway far and wide. Almost every knight sought out a youth who should be worthy of him, and consolidated with such youth a close blood-brotherhood. It often happened that on account of the beloved one the knight would become involved in an affair of jealousy or a duel. If one reads Nanshok-Okagami (a series of tales on this subject by Saikak, a celebrated novelist of the 17th century) one will find plenty of stories of this sort. Thus the relation remained at first only between knights and knightlings (so they called the favorites), but afterwards it became more general.” Further, the same author says:–“It is also remarkable that this kind of love is not known to the same degree in all the provinces of Japan. It seems that it has spread more widely in the Southern part than in the Northern provinces. There are regions where the general public knows nothing of it. On the other hand, in Kyushu, and especially in Satsuma, it is from of old very wide spread. That arises possibly from the fact that people there in Satsuma prize courage and manliness so very highly, while in other provinces where comrade-love is little or not at all known, women command much more attention and love. For one hears it said by well-informed folk that the population in those provinces where the love of youths prevail is more manly and robust, while in regions which are void of it the people are softer, more lax, and often more dissolute.” Satsuma is celebrated, of course, even down to to-day for the great athletes and warriors it produces and has produced; and it has been pointed out what a remarkable list may be made of well-known heroes of the Russo-Japanese war coming from this general region–among them for instance, Field-Marshals Saigo, Kawamura, and Oyama, and Admirals Togo and Yamamoto. Mr. Suweyo Iwaya says (Ibid., pp. 467, 468) that the knightlings (corresponding to the Dorian eromenoi) were called Kosho, and Dr. Karsch-Haack, 1 drawing his information partly from Iwaya and partly from other sources, says that “the Samurai, including the military and nobility, in the feudal period from the 12th century onwards, were reckoned the first and most honorable class in Japan, and the custom rooted itself among them more and more, especially among the Daimyo chiefs, of having attached to them, besides their wives, fine young men or youths–their Kosho. And this passionate love-relation of a knight to the youth whom he had sought and won–a relation which now and again under special circumstances would end in the simultaneous death of both partners–found its Japanese Homer in the unknown poet-author of the romance Shidzu-no Odamaki.”
A Japanese friend of mine assures me that of all the historical characters of the “Age of Wars” (400 years ago) Nobunaga Oda, a great overlord and warrior-chief, was one of the most famous. He is said to have had many Kosho; but of them all Rammaru Mori was the most intelligent and beautiful, and his special favourite. Tradition affirms that the love-relation between Nobunaga and Rammaru was most intimate. When Nobunaga’s vassals revolted against him, Rammaru fought very bravely for his lord, and seriously damaged the enemy; but in a surprise attack Nobunaga’s party was defeated, and he and Rammaru perished fighting side by side.
Dr. Karsch-Haack goes on to say that the region of Satsuma has been from of old, and is yet to-day the centre of this comrade-love; and as an explanation of this fact he mentions the opinion just quoted, which prevails there, concerning the greater tendency of the affection to produce manliness and efficiency in the population; but he says that “beyond this there used to be in Satsuma under the old feudal regime-and until it was abolished in 1868–a law which considerably limited normal intercourse between man and woman, imposing the death penalty on any young man under thirty who had dealings of sexual nature with a woman. 1 This law arose out of the circumstance that the population of Satsuma was of a very warlike breed, and as generally ten to twenty thousand men would be absent from home on military campaigns, they would naturally be in continual anxiety about the fidelity of their wives, left exposed to the importunities of the younger generation, unless the latter were kept in check by severest penalties.”
We have already mentioned the romance Shidzu-no Odamaki, and as an illustration of Samurai comradeship a brief digest of it may be given (from the same author). The scene is laid towards the end of the 16th century, and describes the devotion existing between the young man Yoshida Daizo, of the Daimyo’s Court, and the youth Hirata Sangoro, son of the chief attendant of the court. Yoshida’s love for Hirata begins with his rescue of the latter from the hands of two scoundrels, and on the outbreak of Japan’s second war with Korea (1597), Yoshida takes Hirata as his companion-at-arms with him. Their ages are now twenty-five and fifteen respectively. Yoshida falls in battle, and when Hirata learns of this, he throws himself on the enemy and dies a hero’s death. The story ends with the remark: “Hirata’s death was the simple result of his heartfelt devotion to Yoshida, and his self-forgetting friendship compelled him to this tragic end. But such blossoms of knightly courage in the feudal times are familiar to all, and we know how much this sort of love-intimacy was prized, and what tears this manner of dying elicited.”
Of the same period apparently is the romance Mokukudzu-Monogatari. A young Samurai, Unemé, of eighteen years of age, and in the service or retinue of the lord Funakawa, falls desperately in love with Ukyo, a youth of sixteen, also a Samurai, and in the retinue of another lord, Sakuragawa. Ukyo is wonderfully beautiful, well-formed, and well-mannered, but Unemé finds no opportunity to approach him or to confess his passion. A chance meeting only makes matters worse. “Tortured by unsatisfied longing he falls into a sheer love-sickness. To impart his secret to anyone he does not dare. Even his doctor fails to fathom the cause of his suffering. But when one day the patient receives a visit from some acquaintances, who by chance bring Ukyo with them, he at once is himself again, and his face fairly shines with joy. Though his beloved does not understand, Unemé directs towards him all the fulness of his heart. Only one of his friends, the Shiga Samonosuke, notices the change which Ukyo’s presence brings, and he guesses the secret. Unemé, at first, when Samonosuke challenges him, denies the truth out of shame. But presently Samonosuke finds verses in which Unemé has given expression to his agony of love for Ukyo; and this discovery brings about an open conversation. Unemé confesses to Samonosuke his love, and at the same time his dread of exposure and punishment, and his fear that under this unhappy dispensation he will die. Samonosuke tries to soothe these anxieties, and offers himself as mediator between lover and beloved. And so it comes about that Ukyo receives a letter from Unemé with a love-poem therein. In his answer Ukyo expresses his hope of seeing Unemé again right soon in full health and activity; and Ukyo’s friendliness works like a charm on Unemé, who at once feels that he has recovered. In their respective occupations opportunities of meeting do not so often present themselves to the youthful pair. Only at a festival, on the occasion of a visit of the Shogun, do they come to definite speech and mutual understanding. The youths swear to each other–whatever else may happen–to hold together in life and in death.
“And from thenceforward they are one heart and one soul. Till evil fate in the shape of Hosono Chuzen, a contemporary and old comrade of Unemé, steps between. This fellow, a young man of bad and insolent nature and of repellent aspect, had already for some time been scheming for the possession of Ukyo, but the latter had taken no notice of him. Now, however, he thinks the time has come for him to represent his desire through the mediation and introduction of a third person, but is curtly and indignantly repulsed by Ukyo. Hosono, out of revenge, determines on Ukyo’s death. When Ukyo hears a report of this, he decides at first to turn to Unemé for help, but rejecting this plan as too womanish, resolves to forestall his mortal enemy, and does so by stabbing him to death. Ukyo’s superior officer hears of the murder, and brings him to justice; but when Ukyo makes known the circumstances which led to his deed, he is only punished by a lenient confinement. Hosono’s father, however, with the help of the Shujin Nato, in whose service he is, brings a charge before Sakuragawa against the murderer of his son; and Sakuragawa is obliged to repeal the former sentence, and condemn the guilty man to harakiri.
“Unemé, meanwhile, knowing nothing of all this, is on a visit to his mother in Kanagawa. Being informed by a letter from Samonosuke of what has happened, he takes most affectionate leave of his mother, and forever, in order to return with all speed to Yedo. On his earliest arrival he repairs immediately to the Keiyo-ji Temple, the place where such executions were always accomplished, and on that very spot comes upon Ukyo in the midst of the tragic preparations for his own suicide. He throws himself on the ground beside Ukyo; and the friends once again exchange a few words of tenderest import, embrace each other with tears, and then with dignity and heroism complete the work of harakiri. ‘They died like dewdrops on the flowers of spring.’ When Ukyo’s unhappy mother received the sign of the self-destruction of her son–a tuft of his hair–she lost her reason and drowned herself.”
Dr. Haack, who gives the above two summaries, says that according to J. Schedel, these two romances “were till a few years ago classic reading-lessons in the Japanese schools!”
But Nanshok Okagami (the Great Mirror of Man’s Love) seems to be the most classical collection of such tales. It appeared first in 1687; and its author, Saikaku, has for two centuries had great renown in Japan, as a creative artist and poetic realist; and though in his later period the re-issue of his works has been prohibited, it may be said of him that–“Pornography was by no means the purpose of his literary activity, but rather an untampered reproduction of real life, to which, of course, a poetical side may always be found. His works are wanting neither in charming freshness, nor in deep feeling, nor in poetic beauty.” 1 Saikaku describes, in one place, the loves of the young Okura and the eighteen-year-old Geki–both sons of Shinto priests. “For two years this comrade-alliance lasted, and during this time they were together night and day. One of them was never seen alone. It was only with the death of Okura that the tie was broken. Geki, however, was then adopted by Okura’s father, and the latter’s daughter was given to him for wife.” As models of such lovers, Saikaku draws the picture of Mondo and Hanimon, the one aged sixty-three, and the other sixty-six. They learned to know and love each other when the first counted only sixteen years, while the second was nineteen years old and had already gone through his course of military instruction. For almost fifty years they lived thus, as bachelors, in an ever renewed freshness of intimacy.”
Dr. Von Meyer, in a book by his friend Elisar von Kupffer, gives a translation of a few pages from the story of Tamura by Saikak–which may be reproduced here as an example of a rather more sentimental and less heroic tale of Samurai love. Kanimon Maruo, whose dress betrays that he is a Samurai, falls in love, while on an angling excursion, with a good-looking youth named Sannojo Tamura, connected with the family of the Daimyo of Koriyama. One evening, late, the latter has to return, and by a somewhat dangerous route, from a theatrical performance which he has attended. “As Tamura reached the vicinity of Daianji (a well-known temple) there came from a side-path a man in the style of a servant, with a cowl over his head and a lantern in his hand, who walked on in front of him. And by the help of this guide, whom he gladly followed, Tamura soon reached Koriyama. The man indeed went as far as Tamura’s house in Takata-Machi, and then turned back again when he saw Tamura enter his home. So far Tamura had not paid much attention, but now the affair seemed really strange. He looked, however, to his parents first, and let them know of his return from the theatre. Having done this, he went out again and hastened after the lantern, and at length over-took it. By the glimmer of the lantern he caught sight of a robe of chrysanthemum pattern. And now guessing that this must be the Samurai whom he had met once before, by day, he followed the light closer; but in the vicinity of Nara it slowly dwindled and went out, and in the pitch darkness the keenest eyesight could perceive nothing. Presently a voice became audible:–‘Art thou not perhaps an attendant of the young nobleman, sent to make enquiries, seeing he was accompanied by a person in disguise?’ But Tamura knew the voice and said:–‘I have followed thee back again so far, because I have learned to know thy heart,’ and he grasped Maruo’s hand. To Maruo it seemed all like a dream, and for a time he stood quite still and unable to speak.
‘Is it all true?’ he said.
‘I am grateful to thee for thy friendliness,’ replied Tamura.
‘Do not let thy feeling change!’
‘My feeling shall not change.’
‘Forget me not!’
‘I will never forget thee.’
And so as they exchanged many such words, the clock of Kiyo in the West struck two; and as it was deep night they remained there and entertained each other in the darkness; and before dawn they made ready to return–though in truth their parting came too soon. Each wished for a favorable opportunity of meeting again. Maruo accompanied Tamura back again, and on the way they spoke of how uncertain life is. ‘No one can count on the cherry-tree blooming a second time, that is why the ripe cherry is so beautiful!’ And so they made an appointment for the second day of March.”
And now Maruo catches a chill and dies. Tamura, unsuspecting, arrives on the appointed day, only to hear of the disaster. He goes to Maruo’s house, and finds the corpse already on its bier, and praying beside it a young man whose name proves to be Sanai. Amid tears and lamentations the two young men make acquaintance. Tamura insists that he will put an end to his life, in order not to be separated from Maruo. Sanai, not without much difficulty, dissuades him; and finally out of their common love for Maruo the two become close friends. They unite their lives, and one night the spirit of Maruo appears to the two sleepers and blesses their union.
Dr. Haack rightly says, 1 with regard to this and the other works of Saikaku:–“How is it possible to justify the complete neglect of this literature? Saikaku’s work does not only belong to the history of literature generally, but is also a mine of information for the history of Japanese culture, such as can only be left out of consideration by wilful suppression of the truth.”
It is hardly possible to study the above and other accounts of the Samurai Institution in Japan without being struck by its resemblance (already noticed) to the Dorian military comradeship. Though the comrade-alliances of knight and knightling were quite commonly recognised in Japan, they never became exactly an institution of the State as they were in Sparta and Crete; but they obviously had their profound influence and result in sealing and confirming the lofty standard of honour represented by Bushido.
Dr. Friedrich Kraus, in his book on Japan, 2 describes the comrade-relation there between knight and youth as of the same noble type as among the early Greeks; and he goes on to say that similar relations continue to-day in the army, as between officers and soldiers, and that many a time on the battlefields of Manchuria during the last war they inspired contempt of death or willing devotion of life for the sake of a loved friend.
I may say that a friend of my own who took part in the same war confirms this view, and Karsch-Haack says 1:–“If it is true, as eye-witnesses of the campaign have declared, that comrade-love is still–as a legacy from the Samurai–much favored in both the Japanese army and navy, and that it has contributed not a little to the marvelous results of their late war with Russia–why then one can hardly reject as unjustifiable the opinion that this love is more likely to encourage manly bearing than to stand in the way of the same.”
Intermediate Types among Primitive Folk, by Edward Carpenter,