Part 2: The Roots of the Samurai
by Ming Zhen Shakya
Sometime during the period we call the Pax Romana, groups of asiatic horsemen, sailors, and metallurgists who, unlike their Chinese relatives, were illiterate, crossed the Korean Straits and settled in Kyushu, the southernmost of Japan’s four main islands. Their technology was superior to the indigenous people and so, as powerful invaders usually do, they dominated and they prospered. Their God of gods, Amaterasu, a sun goddess, had mated with a mortal and, in this act of combining a holy spirit with a privileged human being, created an offspring who would be the founder of a great religion. The concept is not new to us.
Eventually, a descendant of this sacred union would acquire the title of Emperor. For more than sixteen hundred years of demonstrable history, this hereditary line has remained unbroken. The present Emperor of Japan carries the genes and chromosomes of the first Emperor of Japan.
The Caesars reigned contemporaneously with earlier, now legendary Japanese emperors; but the Caesars only casually claimed the genes of divine antecedents; and far from founding a new religion, they sponsored one that was in a state of decay. The wars they fought in order to preserve their official prerogatives and divine rights only hastened their imperial demise.
The Emperor of Japan, on the other hand, was not a political leader; and, in terms of longevity, this made all the difference His person was sacred and, as such, created the Shinto religion’s spiritual bridge to heaven. He did not function as a conduit for traffic between mortals. Secular power was held by an ordinary human being, a dictatorial kind of prime minister, who had no divine claims to press. This person made the decisions that provided for the luxuries of court; attended to the common weal, and committed armies to battles; and he had the power to collect taxes to support those decisions. The divine genes descended through the imperial male line; but since primogeniture was not invoked and the exclusivity of that male line obviously had to provide for marriage to outsiders, the prime minister was able to marry his daughters into the imperial family and to choose, by assassination if need be, the particular prince who would inherit the throne. The all-mortal minister who first became pre-eminent in this role was the head of the Soga clan.
Soga Clan Prime Ministry (c. 400 AD – A.D. 622.)
As the population grew, expanding northwards into coveted lands, clans and tribes condensed into fiefs that tended to regard themselves as autonomous. Distance from the Soga’s seat of power and the absence of writing made communication difficult, and the Soga could not effectively control these provinces. The attempts they made to regulate them were regarded as interference and profoundly resented as such. Without central control and the means by which disputes could be mediated, the various chieftains settled scores in the usual manner: they went to war. A perceived insult could send an army into battle, as could a marriage jealously observed. They fought for land and power and for anything else they could think of. Wars were as dependable as tides.
The Soga chief, Iname, needed to neutralize the belligerence, but only civility could do that. Civility was found in culture – in literature, art and philosophy; and there was not enough of that to be found on his islands. Religion would have eased the problem by imposing ecclesiastical law-and-order on the belligerents; but provincial religion, far from restraining aggression, abetted it.
At court, an elite few, needing to keep records, knew how to write in chinese characters; but no one in the provinces understood the Chinese writing system, and without writing, nothing could be codified; and religion, minus any ethical conformity, became an amorphous mass of shamanistic superstitions and charred-bones’ divinations. With pitiless regularity somebody would toss a tortoise shell into a brazier, and it would crack in the direction that augured well for a declaration of war. Iname presided over chaos.
And then, in 552, the king of Korea presented a solution to the problem: The king needed some of that Japanese militarism to help defeat his enemies. As an inducement, he sent Iname a large bronze Buddha statue along with Buddhist missionaries who brought not only scriptures, but a more compelling need to learn script. The trade-off was perfect. The Soga had long admired Chinese culture and now, with the interest in writing that Buddhism had inspired, came brush and ink, literature and art and an entree into China’s cultural venue – which was especially attractive. China’s terrible Warring States’ period had been brought to a close largely by the tranquilizing effects of Buddhism, and the Soga desired a similar peace.
China was making its courtly procession towards the T’ang Golden Age; and Japan began to proceed in step behind it, copying the movements until it learned them so well it could create its own improvisations.
Buddhism had split into many different sects in its thousand year history, giving the Japanese a wide variety of forms to import. The ones they chose were rich in temple art, lesser gods, and joyful liturgies. Zen was not among the forms selected.
The Japanese also picked and chose what they wanted from Confucianism, a religion known for its ritualistic honoring of ancestral spirits and for its emphasis upon standardized qualifications for civil service – a system that had contributed much to efficient government in China. The Soga wanted to institute this bureaucratic merit system; but it was rejected, both by the various, largely illiterate warlords in the provinces and by the newly rich at court who wanted to secure positions of advantage for themselves and their relatives. But everything else about China was slavishly copied, including that ornate Chinese writing system, which, in Japan, scribed the deepest line of demarcation between the classes. Only the leisure class could afford to master Chinese; and then, only the males of the leisure class were considered eligible for instruction. Women were excluded from reading or writing literature in the only extant form.
The Japanese language was only distantly related to Chinese. And the Japanese all spoke the same language – unlike the Chinese who spoke several dozen different languages. Such phonemic indications as were included in the individual characters pertained to Chinese speech Pictographs and marks that had been assigned abstract meanings could be read by any Chinese person, providing he knew which sign conveyed which meaning – a daunting task considering the volume of characters that had to be memorized and reproduced. In China, all things considered, it was an efficient system. In Japan, it was a wretched waste of time. Japanese women, realizing that there were less than 50 syllables in their native language, invented their own streamlined writing system, a syllabary that is still used today. The time they would have spent memorizing characters, they devoted to creating great literature – books that even now are considered world classics.
The rough barons in the hinterlands quickly learned the syllabary and gained the advantages of written communication. The aristocrats sneered calling their script “women’s writing” but it was “writing” not “drawing” and it suited their needs perfectly.
And now Japanese who lived in the Soga spheres of influence bustled and primped with mainland fashion, with art, architecture, and literature, with textiles and ceramics, metallurgy, and all manner of crafts.
But while Buddhism did secure more peaceful conditions over established areas, the northward expansion of the population kept the governmental reach tantalizingly beyond its grasp. Shamanistic practices persisted; and warlords, those chieftains of distant settlements, continued to squabble and to settle their differences with swords.
When the chieftains finally did come together to agree on something, it was to join forces in order to destroy the government. And in 622, their coalition cost the House of Soga its power and the lives of most of its family members.
Fujiwara Clan Ministry (645 – 1156)
By 645, when China’s 6th Patriarch Hui Neng was a boy of seven selling firewood to support himself, the seat of government in Japan would be taken by the Fujiwara clan who would hold it for the next 500 years.
Although it had previously been the custom to move the court every time an Emperor died, the new Buddhist influence and the example of the Chinese Emperors who maintained a permanent residence in a “capital” city, inspired the Japanese to establish their first capital, Nara. Prosperous nobles flocked to Nara, becoming dandy courtiers, while pompous clerics, whose opulence befitted their exalted state, reposed in splendid temples. Living in Nara meant living lavishly in idleness – except for the energy required to maintain one’s appearance, gossip, compose a charming phrase, and participate in a ceremony of some sort or other.
But when Buddhist clerics got too numerous and too meddlesome, a new capital, sufficiently distant from Nara’s ornate temples to make travel inconvenient, was established in Kyoto. And now the aristocracy, unfettered by the only slightly more restrained Buddhist clerics, pushed the word “excess” to see how far they could extend it. For once they installed themselves in Kyoto, there was no pulling back. Fashion’s “pecuniary canons of taste” and “honorific waste” – and all the folly that attends unlimited money and insatiable vanity – proved that not only Caesars or Sun Kings knew how to live in numbing magnificence.
Etiquette and protocol, daintiness and decorum, and physical beauty of some rather extraordinary standards applied. Men and women brushed acid onto their teeth to make them black; and they painted their faces and necks white… and applied rouge liberally. Men wore lacquered black hats that were topped with a decoration that resembled a raven’s tail, and women required that their hair be full, strong, lustrous, and longer than they were tall. Coifing these pounds of hair required countless servants; and since couture also determined status, silks of astonishing color and weave were lavishly designed into fantastic costumes, sometimes worn layer upon layer, requiring cottage industries of silk worm farmers, weavers, dyers, designers and seamstresses to create, and laundresses, chambermaids and valets to maintain. The less natural and the more artificial life became, the better. Men strove to be fops, women to be mannequins.
Humanity was an inverse function of distance. In Kyoto, elegance and refinement were not only de rigueur, they were evidence of being a human being; and the farther one went from the ethereal circles of Kyoto’s paradise, the less human and more brutish were the creatures one encountered. Lower than the servants who touched their persons were the brutes who reigned as warlords in the outlying districts. The warlords did not appreciate the distinction.
In the Fujiwara court, the new elite, reveling in its fastidious sophistication, developed such a complete disdain for the lower classes that they considered it ridiculous even to attempt to educate them for positions in the bureaucracy. In their contumelious conviction, nepotism was the only possible means of selecting executives and administrators. Even more irrational than their fashion sense was their belief that brothers-in-law and bored sons could make ideal administrators. Government became cumbersome, incomprehensible, inefficient, and unjust.
It was this ingrained sense of superiority that would later become relevant in the samurai fighting style – for the samurai were drawn from these aristocratic ranks and before they would consider engaging in combat, it was necessary to determine family lineage. This was the template for honor – which was another way of saying family “face.” An opponent had to be worthy of the rules of engagement. He, too, had to value family honor above all other considerations. Those who were not related by blood – particularly the lowly agricultural workers – were obviously inferior and their lives had little meaning. Completely expendable, they were conscripted to serve as foot soldiers, regardless of the devastating consequences to their farms. Worse, they had to furnish their own weapons (which were prohibitively expensive) and they had to train themselves in combat techniques. If a man wanted to live to see another harvest, he learned “self-defense.” The noblemen sat upon their horses, arrayed wondrously in armor, and even further protected by their ancestral spirits whose names they shouted before they charged into battle. Such protective raiment was never issued to the conscript. He looked to nature and copied the strategies and tactics of birds, insects, and animals. To the unarmed man who knew no heroic lineage, stealth, speed, agility, accuracy, and constant awareness were his only protection, his limbs his only weapons. Such ordnance cost nothing but time and practice to acquire. Providing for the nobility was a bit more expensive.
Nobles and priests paid their considerable expenses from revenues raised from their farmlands – from taxes levied and collected as a portion of each farm’s produce. But though they had great respect for the finer things of life, money did not determine an individual’s significance. Lineage was the factor that enabled a man to appreciate those finer things: a fastidious daintiness, an effete charm, a languorous obsession with finesse and fashion, with poetry and perfume. Money could not purchase the innate sensitivity required to indulge in these pursuits. If money mattered, well, then those barons in the hinterlands who were very rich could not be dismissed as boors and bumpkins which they obviously were.
Being treated by the court as rude inferiors did not sit well with the barons. And so, as could be expected, while the nobles polished their calligraphy, the barons polished their armor.
In the long run, the pen would not be mightier than the sword.
In Nara’s exalted circumstance, at the summit was the Emperor, surrounded by an inner circle of royal stock; then another circle of “social acceptables” and so on down from perfection’s peak. Long before the base was reached, came the non-scalable “no-man’s-land” of aristocratic separation. At the upper reaches, however, there was intermingling of states but no confusion about status: rank was indicated by the style of the wearer’s garments – gorgeous raiment of clear distinction. Aristocratic nepotism also determined the composition of the hierarchy; and the priest class was likewise identified by garment. Each level of aristocracy had its commensurate level of ecclesiastical rank; and in these associated ranks, properly attired priests and nobles intermingled.
But some of these literate priests tended to take too seriously the scriptures they read. To the court, there was no point in favoring one religion over another: they were all inclined to inject ethics (of all things!) into social affairs. This could not be tolerated.
The Fujiwara moved the Emperor’s court to Kyoto, sufficiently distant from Nara to discourage travel. All the priests were supposed to stay behind in Nara, ensconced in their sumptuous temples. The nobles had deluded themselves into believing that Nara was an immovable object and that they were safely removed from it. They did not reckon upon the irresistibility of their own wealth. Nara clerics, like so many iron filings, turned their negative poles to the positive attractions of Kyoto’s life. They could not help themselves. (Prestigious vows of poverty do not sufficiently compensate the alluring pain of wealth.) As soon as the clerics showed up in Kyoto, zoning laws were enacted. It was prohibited by law to construct a religious building within a given radius of aristocratic residences and gathering places.
Nothing can stand for long between a priest and his flock, and before long the priests not only got close to the source of their calling, but in their common effort they became more congenial; and Buddhism, Confucianism, and Shintoism formed an elastic accommodation. The ecumenical approach had something for everyone.
While armies guarded Kyoto, nobody guarded the rest of the country. Nepotism had its inevitable result: anarchy was the law of the land. Highwaymen robbed travelers on the roads; pirates robbed them on the seas. Roving gangs of thugs invaded homesteads, helping themselves to cattle and kin. There was no governmental protection against the raping, burning, killing, and pillaging. The only hope the individual homesteader had was to pledge his allegiance and his land to the local warlord in exchange for the warlord’s protection. The warlord levied his own taxes, but the farm and the farmer, while still in the feudal system, gained a more caring owner.
Temples were invaded as frequently as homes. No building or property was safe; and since the greatest concentration of wealth was in Kyoto, the roving bands of thugs moved relentlessly closer to the prize. The Fujiwara had always seen the Emperor’s divine origins as a shield against mortal attack. For so long as the emperor’s person was sacred and it was they who guarded the emperor, there existed a pleasant symbiotic relationship . They would provide all the pomp an emperor could possibly want, and the divine aura would surround them like a shining steel net.
To support the steel barrier; the Fujiwara had forged an alliance with two powerful clans, the Minamoto and the Taira, who happily became the marines and infantry of the regime. As such they had the power to enter any of the Imperial lands and conscript the farmer and his sons. Small landholders resisted by forming unions whose boundaries expanded to meet the ever-increasing boundaries of the warlords, who then, by making them an offer they couldn’t refuse, simply absorbed them into their fiefs.
Further exacerbating the problem was the tax-exempt status conferred upon the numerous family estates. As these estates proliferated and as warlords expanded their fiefs, imperial revenue sources began to disappear. Due to civil strife in China, trade with the mainland had ceased, curtailing foreign exchange, and though the government tried hard to squeeze income from warlords and tax-exempt estates, the efforts failed. The warlords and aristocrats needed all the funds they had to finance the costs of fighting each other. The tax base had shrunk, but the government’s expenses had not. Such a situation never bodes well for governments.
And from the middle of the 900s through the entire 1100s there was nothing but war, internecine squabbling, and lawlessness outside the nervous capital.
The treasure house may have been empty; but the treasure house itself was still a prize; and the the Minamoto and Taira clans that had once protected the capital, now fought over it. The day of the House of Fujiwara was over.
Noble families rushed to the frontiers to barter with the only possessions they had: their noble lineage. It brought new blood to the bloodshed.
And so it came to pass that a brutal warlord gained a genteel “daimyo” rank and a noble scion became a servant; a “samurai” – which means “one who serves.”
The year given for the end of Japan’s Golden Age of poetry and flowers, fashion and foppery, and its entrance into the Age of the Samurai is 1156. For that was the year that the Minamoto and Taira clans confronted each other in Kyoto.
A new era had begun.