Part 5: The Rising Sun Sets Upon The Samurai
by Ming Zhen Shakya
Tokugawa “Edo” Shogunate (1603 – 1868)
It has ever been the case that when men in power are given the support of religion, they will use that support but never credit it; and when men in power are not given the support of religion, they will hold the religion responsible for every mistake they make.
Ieyasu regretted that after having pledged to protect Hideyoshi’s son, he instead destroyed him; but he also believed that without the support of the Western Christian daimyos, Hideyoshi’s son would never have been a threat needful of destruction.
In 1600, a Dutch ship, piloted by an Englishman named William Adams, landed on a southern island. Immediately the Catholic missionaries demanded that Adams be executed for piracy. No one knew better than a samurai that “The enemy of my enemy is probably my friend,” and Ieyasu not only forbade anyone from harming Adams, but he further discomfited the Catholics by ordering Adams to be brought to his palace for a long and private audience. Adams, being an English Protestant, was familiar with Spain, Portugal, and Catholicism, and his adverse opinions of all three confirmed Ieyasu’s suspicions and validated the opinions expressed by the Buddhists. Adams gave further assurance that if a trade agreement could be reached between Japan and the Dutch and English, Japan would receive all of trade’s benefits and none of religion’s detriments.
Ieyasu expressed a desire to have his own large trading ships, and Adams, who had once apprenticed as a shipwright, agreed to do his best in supervising the building of several large ships. His best proved to be good indeed, for the ships he built sailed to Mexico and back quite safely. Adams was handsomely rewarded for his efforts as was the Dutch East India Trading Company. He was even permitted to carry the samurai’s “two swords.” The Portuguese and Spaniards were invited to leave.
Unfortunately, their farewell addresses lacked a certain “consolation of parting.” They were accomplished motivational speakers; and they were not motivated to leave but to strengthen Christian unity in defiance of civil order. Emotionally aroused, their converts did not respond well to Ieyasu’s order that all citizens convert to Buddhism and to be sincere in that conversion. Those who lacked the required verve were executed.
The samurai nobles constituted 10% of the population of Japan, a considerable leisure class for the common man to support. Ieyasu could count no less than 260 daimyos, 259 more than he would have preferred. Many of these lords had huge armies and many palaces. He therefore ordered that each daimyo have no more than one castle; and to prevent alliances that might prove inimical to his interests, he ordered that any marriage between nobles first be approved by him. And to prevent the daimyos from growing too rich from trading, he also imposed restrictions on the number of ships each could possess.
To enforce the concept of centralized government, he decreed that each daimyo must contribute men and material to the construction of a government complex of buildings and his private palace in the new bakufu capital in Edo – which was suddenly transformed into the metropolis later called Tokyo.
Aware that one man could think whatever he liked but that it took two men to conspire, he permitted the feudal lords to rule their fiefs as they saw fit; but what he strictly regulated was their interaction with each other.
Ieyasu recognized four classes of individuals: warriors, farmers, artisans, and tradesmen. It was not an Indian Caste System which permitted no movement between castes, but rather a means to establish conformity within the members of the group. Each class had to be instantly identifiable by uniform. Merchants had to appear in public wearing homespun cotton kimonos; a purpose they did not consider defeated by lining them with gorgeous silk brocades.
For the Samurai, ko-mon, those heraldic crests had to be displayed on garments. Fabrics, styles, and colors were allocated according to class and even the menu suffered its share of class distinction. Delicacies could be prepared by the common man but not consumed by him. On and on the regulations went.
Ieyasu understood the democratic principle: the power to tax is the power to destroy. When to tax too much and when to tax not enough was as large a problem to him as it is to any modern regime. When it came to political ambitions and the mother’s milk of all politics, i.e., money, he did not want to oppress, he merely wanted to depress. It was therefore necessary for him to require large tribute payments from his 260 daimyo taxpayers. They, in turn, passed the burden onto the common man.
In his early seventies, while hawking with his favorite birds, he grew ill. He died shortly after, leaving the Shogunate to his son. But after eight years of ruling Japan, his son retired, dropping the burden onto his own son, the formidable Iemitsu.
In 1623, as the Pilgrims suffered the labors of creating a new way of life, Iemitsu became Shogun and cruelly squeezed the life out of an old one. The Golden Age of Samurai nobility of body, soul, and mind was over.
Unlike his grandfather who, he claimed, visited him in visions, Iemitsu had never so much as witnessed a battle. He had, therefore, no inhibitions about warfare. He summoned each daimyo and ordered him to submit to his absolute authority or suffer complete family extermination.
He had inherited a nation at peace with the shogun’s coffers filled with daimyo tribute; yet he was brutal, tyrannical, and more than normally paranoid for a shogun. To eliminate any possible competition for his position, he ordered his younger brother to commit suicide. Any man at court who disagreed with him issued his own death warrant. But what would he do with all those unemployed nobles? How would he keep them from conspiring against him? How would he ensure that they always lacked the funds to mount a military campaign against him? Iemitsu devised an efficient scheme for achieving his goals. He initiated the “Alternate Attendance System.”
Every daimyo had to send a large contingent of samurai to Edo every year to spend several months in the capital. Samurai wives and children had to remain in Edo the entire year which meant that within a single generation there were samurai who did not know their own estates, who knew only Edo and the friends and, presumably, the enemies they met growing up in Edo. It would be as if each of the United States was governed by families who had lived every day of their formative years only in Washington, D.C. (One does not have to be a States’ Rights advocate to shudder at the thought.) If in their fiefs regional dialects were spoken, they did not know them… or the manners and customs of those who would have been their neighbors. When samurai boys became men and journeyed to their fief for the first time, they went as strangers.
And the cost to the daimyo to send a well-groomed army and countless support personnel on the long overland journey, to maintain them at Edo during the Attendance period, and to maintain the families of the Samurai at Edo all year round, was prohibitive. Three-fourths of a daimyo’s income could easily be spent each year on pointless expeditions to the capital. Manufacturers and merchants along the routes prospered.
During the Attendance Period at Edo, the samurai had to have something to do and money to spend doing it. But Iemitsu decreed that the samurai could not work beneath their station. With no way to earn money they had to content themselves with spending their stipends in the pastimes of idleness and boredom: gambling, effete musings, fashion, food, poetry, theater, gossip, and the ever-popular wine, women, and song were the pursuits of knightly valor.
Centuries before, the rise of the samurai began when idle, vain and utterly useless aristocrats fled the capital of Kyoto to find sanctuary and purpose in service to hinterland daimyos. And now the situation was completely reversed. Trained and spirited samurai came to the capital in Edo to live like idle, vain, and utterly useless aristocrats. The arts of war had been reduced to sport and grandstand chatter.
Farmers, in a feudal system, belong to the land – as countable and as fixed in place as trees. They received no permission to travel the five highways that led to Edo. Passports were issued and border guards carefully inspected them and the travelers who bore them.
The rules of etiquette applied. With nothing of importance to do, trivia became significant. The samurai could settle their disputes among themselves in strict ritualistic form; but if a samurai so much as suspected that a lower class man had insulted him, he could quite literally slice him in half without even offering an explanation much less a statement of regret.
It was mandatory that a wife wear a red headband when she brought her husband his meals as he worked from dawn to dusk in the fields.
If anyone even unknowingly broke one of Iemitsu’s myriad rules, he could be mercilessly flogged or even crucified. It was not a time to be careless.
Since warriors had no wars to fight, they were expected to become scholars, not to satisfy intellectual curiosity but rather to fill their vacant times with reading and writing. By way of “busywork” they wrote poetry; and because they had no money to pay for their enforced luxury, they would congregate in public places which the generous merchant class visited. So that there would be no infraction of the rules of class distinction, pen names were adopted.
As the years passed and burdens upon the poor to pay for all these excesses increased beyond the capacity to bear them, the system collapsed. Unable to pay samurai retainers, the daimyo released many of them from service and they became Ronin, unattached knights, or paladins.
Some ronin formed gangs, resorting to theft and extortion, activities which were once attributed to the despised merchant class. But this class had gotten very rich, and again, in a complete reversal of fortune, the merchants would pay daimyo to adopt them so that they could wear those coveted samurai heraldic crests upon their kimonos.
The strain of irrational cruelty that cursed the great Ieyasu’s line became evident again in the Fifth Tokugawa Shogun who happened to be born in the Year of the Dog. He decreed that no dog could be killed and that any stray animal must be housed and fed. Thousands of dogs were kenneled in Edo. People in the countryside starved, but the dogs were fed.
In the year 1637, in Shimabara, drought and famine had reduced the people to unbearable suffering. One farmer who was unable to pay his taxes had to watch his innocent daughter unmercifully flogged for his failure to pay. The farmers along with the “closeted” Christians rebelled and barricaded themselves in a castle. The shogun ordered the castle to be placed under siege until all who occupied it starved to death. And then it was decreed that foreign influence had created this rebellion. The Dutch were confined to a small island near the port of Nagasaki. Japanese who were abroad were prohibited from returning and no Japanese citizen could leave Japan.
Two years later a Portuguese ship sailed into Japanese waters. The Shogun ordered all personnel on board – which included royal ambassadors – to be executed except for a few men who, acting as messengers, were told to inform the King of Portugal that if his Majesty entered Japanese waters again, his head, too, would be removed. Japan had begun several centuries of total isolation.
And as if to codify samurai codes before they could all be forgotten, in the middle of the seventeenth century, Miyamoto Mushashi composed The Five Rings of samurai strategy .
And it is also in this time period, in 1659, that in Nabashima fief, a young Buddhist samurai named Tsunetomo was born into the Yamamoto family. He would be a Buddhist acolyte, a writer, a trained samurai warrior, a monk, and finally the author of the Hagakure.