Part 4: The Twilight of the Samurai
by Ming Zhen Shakya
In Medieval Japan there was no Geneva Convention. No Hague Court considered war crimes. War crimes were warfare’s status quo.
Bushido, the Japanese version of the Chinese wu shi dao (way of the warrior) is entirely reasonable – particularly when it is looked at from the point of view of those who followed it – and not inspected with lenses crafted nearly a thousand years later.
Necessity created the code of the samurai. They brought to their vocation their education, courtly manners, Buddhist instruction and practice, pride in family lineage, and a thorough respect for their relatives’ vicious intrigues and perfidy.
Intermarriage constituted so much of statecraft that a family quarrel had national consequences – which only contributed to more inter-family strife. Tradition, which inculcated family loyalty, had to be neutralized – opposed by an even greater force. A warrior had to depend on his comrades in battle. He had to trust them… and not just some of the time or casually. He had to believe that his objectives were their objectives; that his loyalties were their loyalties – and the only way this could be accomplished was for all of them to pledge their respective loyalties to an independent leader. Since blood ties could only drag a warrior into compromise and betrayal, it had to be understood that a warrior could not be persuaded to spy or plot or to be intimidated in any way into betraying his fellows. All had to be loyal to the same principal and principles.
If a samurai were killed in battle, other samurai would provide for his family – and not as poor relatives, but as equal members of their households. A samurai’s biological siblings were not so reliable.
The Code, therefore, served to protect warriors from the attacks of sentiment and social ambition. When a samurai vowed, “I have no parents; I make heaven and earth my parents,” or, “I have no friends; I make my Buddha-mind my friend,” or even, “I have no enemy; I make incautiousness my enemy,” he and every other samurai who took such vows, meant it.
In terms of gaining victory, such assurances worked in tandem with anxieties about capture. Fear is always a great motivator; and history records many events that would have inspired the requisite fear. Two events during the Taira and Minamoto conflicts stand out as examples because they have so often been the themes of contemporary films:
After one battle in which the Taira prevailed, the Minamoto chieftain was condemned to death; but the Taira insisted that his own son perform the execution. The son could not behead his father; and another Minamoto samurai stepped forward, seized the sword and executed his own chief; and then he killed himself.
On another occasion, the Minamoto set fire to the palace buildings of a Taira ally. As the men, women and children tried to flee the burning buildings, they were cut down. Those who survived the flames and slaughter were cast into a well to drown or to be crushed to death by the bodies falling on top of them.
There had been at least as much warfare in Japan during the fifteenth century as there was in the rest of the civilized world. And there had been prosperity, too. Foreign trade fostered the growth of great port cities.
The Ashikaga presided over a cultural efflorescence seldom seen in world history. Trade with China, which had been discontinued because of Japanese pirates, resumed in full when the Shogun demonstrated his good faith in the mutual benefits of unimpeded foreign trade. When China captured a few Japanese pirates, the Shogun obliged by publicly boiling them alive. It had a chilling effect on Jolly Rogers everywhere.
But prosperity contained the formula for its own destruction. Families tended to have large, healthy families – with sons who inherited their father’s property. But while population increased, land did not; and Malthusian theory applied. War, pestilence, and famine kept the population in check, but usually challenged the meaning of prosperity. A new cycle had to begin.
Several factors contributed to the disintegration of prosperity. Ashikaga governmental self-absorption had fostered an independent spirit among the various daimyo; and then a new esthetic flared, inspired by nationalistic fervor. The ornate decor of Chinese origin was supplanted by the elegant simplicity of Japanese Zen esthetics. Rugs were replaced by straw mats; heavily embroidered brocades, with delicate weavings; gilded, carved, and lacquered furnishings disappeared; floral profusions became gardens that were sculpted as carefully as renaissance statuary. Everything – music, art, theater, architecture, and literature – was stripped of embellishment. The outer surfaces of style, regarded as so much tarnish, had to be polished away to reveal nothing less than core purity.
But purity did not come cheap and neither did the incessant warfare. The barons continued to fight each other as usual until the peasants were taxed into revolt. For eleven years, during the so-called Onin wars, civil order spun out of control in retrograde revolution. It was always back to the bad old days.
Buildings in Kyoto were burned to the ground; looters moved in to rob the dead of armor and weapons and to salvage what they could from ruined structures. Most of the aristocratic citizens of Kyoto – all members of the samurai class – again fled for their lives, often seeking the protection of those unsophisticated country bumpkins with whom they once would not have condescended to dine.
Like sovereign states, the fiefs each had its own laws; and none of the daimyos paid any attention to the mostly ruined capital city. There was no central government. There was not even a pretense of one. The Ashikaga Shogun, bound to Kyoto, was politically impotent. The Emperor scraped by in dignified poverty.
And then on one otherwise ordinary day in 1543, three Portuguese mariners landed on the southern island of Tanegashima. They carried firearms which they sold to the Daimyo of Tanegashima who promptly gave them to his metalworkers for them to duplicate. The Daimyo had seen a demonstration of the ease with which a musket ball could penetrate armor at a safe and considerable distance; and he did not lack foresight.
New styles of battle came quickly into vogue. Combat between horse mounted samurai now changed to infantrymen led by a few mounted officers. And then these rank and file footmen who bore shields and lances and proceeded in a Spartan kind of phalanx, were in turn replaced by musketeers.
A series of civil wars saw the rise of three extraordinary men who were superb military and political strategists and who quickly adopted the new weaponry into their arsenals. Nobunaga, Hideyoshi, and Ieyasu stepped into the limelight of Japanese history.
Nobunaga, Hideyoshi, and Ieyasu
The Japanese tell a story that illustrates the difference in the three men’s dispositions: the three of them come upon a song bird that is silent. Nobunaga says, “Bird, sing or I’ll kill you.” Hideyoshi says, “Bird, sing or I will force you to sing.” And Ieyasu says, “Bird, I will wait until you sing.” The bird watchers did not always act in accordance with their reputations.
By way of guaranteeing peaceful relations, it was customary for a young son of one great daimyo to be sent to the castle of another daimyo, there to be raised as a member of the family. As a samurai he would be taught the arts of culture and combat. Ieyasu, as the scion of the Tokugawa Clan, was such a “hostage guest” in a castle that would fall in battle to Nobunaga of the Odo Clan.
As little fish are eaten by bigger fish that are in turn eaten by bigger fish until the top of the food chain is reached, the lands of the provincial warlords were consumed until only a few big fish remained in Japan. The top daimyo lord was Nobunaga, who had immediately recognized the superiority of muskets over swords, armed his warriors, and proceeded to conquer more than half of Japan – including the lands of young Ieyasu’s host daimyo.
Ieyasu was then free to return to his own fief. During his absence, his father had died, but his father’s retainers were still loyal, waiting upon the commands of their young lord. Ieyasu did not disappoint. He intensified and broadened the scope of their training regimens to include the latest weaponry; and he secured his line: he married at fifteen and by eighteen had two children.
Nobunaga, the most powerful man in Japan, proved not to be immune to the treachery that infected the body politic. He was assassinated by one of his ambitious generals. And then his brilliant general, Hideyoshi, immediately avenged him, killing the traitorous general. Hideyoshi; a commoner who had no aristocratic prerogatives, simply assumed control of all the lands Nobunaga had unified… and all the armies, too.
Ieyasu considered challenging Hideyoshi’s supremacy but he quickly reconsidered, prudence demanding more preparation. Lacking the power to defeat the brilliant general, he instead formed an alliance with him and was rewarded with a huge domain in the distant area of Tokyo Bay. Hideyoshi ordered him to establish his seat of government in a fishing village called Edo – which is now called Tokyo. Ieyasu complied, building his headquarters in Edo and, at a later time, constructing a magnificent castle for himself – which is now Japan’s Imperial Palace. At this stage of his career, however, he was still waiting for the bird to warble.
Hideyoshi built a grand castle in Osaka near Kyoto. Believing himself to be destined for greatness, he aspired to be named Shogun by the Emperor; and to achieve this end, he lavishly entertained the Emperor and the Imperial court. His efforts were in vain. The Emperor refused to sanction the appointment of a commoner to the position of Shogun. The refusal did not sweeten the rejected leader’s disposition. His administrative style degenerated from strict to sadistic.
While Ieyasu was able to marry his granddaughter to one of the Emperor’s sons, Hideyoshi had no such privilege and further, he had no male heir. He therefore adopted a nephew whom he raised to adulthood, training him to be his successor. But then, at the age of sixty, he fathered a son. His delight with the boy exceeded all rational bounds and serves as an example of the family prejudices which the samurai code tried to obviate; for, now that Hideyoshi had a natural son, he no longer had a use for an adopted one. He therefore ordered the young man to commit suicide and, to preclude any interested party’s desire to retaliate, he executed all possible interested parties…. some thirty-five of his adopted son’s relatives.
Hideyoshi, suffering serious health problems, appointed five regents, Ieyasu among them, to look after his infant son in the event of his death. He died, in 1598, when the boy was five, but not before he exacted a solemn promise from Ieyasu to protect the boy’s life “with his own life.” Ieyasu actually considered keeping this promise…. for longer than might be expected.
When the regent most loyal to Hideyoshi died unexpectedly the following year, Ieyasu suddenly heard the bird sing and took control of Osaka Castle. Particularly since he had been forming alliances with daimyos who had been enemies of Hideyoshi, the three other regents regarded Ieyasu’s action as a provocation that had to be addressed. The country was split into two factions: those daimyos who supported Ieyasu of the Tokugawa Clan and those who supported Hideyoshi’s son whom Ieyasu had allowed to continue residing in Osaka Castle – but as a commoner.
There was a geographical and, by extension, a religious distinction to the split. The Portuguese, having sailed around Africa’s Cape of Good Hope, had entered Japanese waters from the south. Once Japan’s wealth became known to the King of Portugal, he naturally desired to annex the islands. Since the quickest way to do this was through religious conversion and trade, he dispatched merchants and Catholic missionaries whose efforts succeeded beyond all expectation. Within fifty years, the missionaries had made some 300,000 converts and the merchants had enriched the daimyos and commercial houses of Japan’s southwest islands. It was mainly those daimyos who prospered from trade with Portugal and additionally Spain – who opposed Ieyasu whose holdings were largely in northeastern areas. But it was more than financial benefit or the acquisition of new products and weaponry that induced them to support the Portuguese presence. The relentless pace of warfare that had driven Japanese politics for generations had been stalled by the unifying efforts of Christianity.
The Japanese tolerance for religious diversion had in essence destroyed the fundamental solidarity of religious fellowship. But in those fifty years of proselytizing, the Catholic missionaries generated a unity of belief that no other religion in Japan had been able to produce. “Catholic” means “universal” and even today, Catholicism is is precisely that…. catholic. Rituals and dogma are virtually identical around the globe. Especially in Japan, with the contentious array of Buddhist sects, the new liturgical conformity tended to create a peaceful cohesion among the catholic converts. The daimyo in these areas appreciated the peace and prosperity. Many of them also converted.
It followed that the daimyo in northeastern areas, who were not blessed with the international trade and the benefits of religious unity, regarded the southwestern fiefs as a clear and present danger to themselves and to Ieyasu’s intention to govern all of Japan.
The Catholics in Japan were led by a small number of Jesuit missionaries. Ieyasu, as had other leaders before him, tried to curb these priests’ increasing power, thinking that if they eliminated the missionaries they would destroy the mission; but as quickly as he had one Jesuit deported, two Franciscans would slip in with the ships that came from Spain’s Philippine colonies. He wanted the trade that came with Spain and Portugal. He did not want the interference to his rule that their new creed presented. He knew that his predecessors’ unification strategies had required the destruction of recalcitrant Buddhist groups and to that end had burned down temples and executed monks. But the Buddhists had had no commercial value! It was a vexing problem.
More was at stake than trade: it was no secret that Spain and Portugal intended religious conversion to be the overture to a military symphony. Catholicism may have been the goal of the missionaries; but their sovereigns’ goal was colonization.
Of the two powers, Spain posed the greatest threat to Japan. The missionaries were circumspect in discussing the aims of empire, but the seamen who manned the trading ships felt no such compunction. They spoke of Spain’s military might and how the few galleons that sailed into Japanese waters were insignificant compared to great gunships that patrolled the oceans.
Trusted Buddhist clerics had warned Ieyasu that there were now so many Catholic converts in Kyushu that if they ever revolted against him they could hold out long enough for Spain’s armies in Manilla to reinforce them. He already knew that the converts were spreading northward at an alarming rate.
To Ieyasu, the normal intrigues and schemes of everyday life were quite enough. He did not welcome interference and the potential subversions the Catholics presented. Before the problem grew too complicated and unmanageable, it was best to solve it. The showdown would come in a massive military confrontation at Sekigahara Castle, on the plains a hundred miles or so east of Kyoto.
Rain and adverse traveling conditions had disrupted the scheduled arrivals of many of the combatant forces, particularly those of the southwest who had longer treks over the mountainous terrain. Although outnumbered, Ieyasu’s 50,000 troops were better rested than many of the castle’s defending 80,000 troops who had endured weeks of exhausting traveling conditions.
The defenders were not of one mind. Several daimyo were unsure of their choice. Ieyasu was a charismatic leader; and they suspected that his forceful personality, clever strategizing, and aristocratic lineage represented Japan’s best hope for unification. As the battle commenced, Ieyasu’s vigorous attack dispelled any doubts that about the side they had chosen: they left defensive positions and joined his forces. Ieyasu’s victory was complete. The victorious samurai slaughtered thousands of defeated samurai and, of course, any of their relatives who had survived the initial battle. The spoils of war were divided among the victorious daimyos and preparations were made for Ieyasu to be named Shogun. Japan’s long medieval warring period had ended.
Because he had given his word to protect Hideyoshi’s son “with his own life” Ieyasu Tokugawa had left the boy in peace. But too many old Hideyoshi supporters agitated for a restoration of the boy’s rightful place, and so, after ten years of such irritation, in 1615, Ieyasu reneged on his pledge of protection and attacked Osaka Castle. He burned it down, killing all the defenders; and when Hideyoshi’s son committed seppuka, all possible future threats to Ieyasu’s shogunate were eliminated. (Only one woman was spared in the slaughter… the wife of the late lamented scion who happened to be one of Ieyasu’s granddaughters.)
The first pledge of the Code of the Samurai is “I have no parents. I make Heaven and Earth my parents.” No one should wonder why this familial detachment is given the primary position in the Code.
It is said that Ieyasu so regretted having to break his word that as penance he wrote the Buddha’s name ten thousand times.