Saturday, February 6, 2010

Week 6: The Way of the Samurai

Distribution Source: Hulu
Content Source: PBS
Format: Video
Length (Combined): 55 minutes
Link: The Way of the Samurai

"For existence is impermanent as the dew of evening, and the hoarfrost of morning, and particularly uncertain is the life of the warrior…"
- Code of the Samurai

I have never been to Japan, and have had only limited exposure to the country and people. Outside of Quentin Tarantino movies I've had no exposure to the samurai culture. But what little I've seen has made me fascinated with samurai warriors. Their intense training from a young age and unyielding devotion to the warrior lifestyle in conjunction with a deep sense of honor, code of ethics and philosophy seems historically unique. Their status as powerful warriors is unquestioned... earlier today I was trying to figure out who would emerge if you locked a spartan, a Navy SEAL and a samurai in a room for a fight to the death (leave a comment if you have any strong views on this).

The video I watched focused on what was in years a relatively brief period (roughly 100 years), but which represented an immensely important part of Japanese history. It chronicled the ascent to power of one of the most famous and powerful samurai, Tokugawa Ieyasu. Ieyasu would ultimately pull Japan out of its feudal civil wars, implement a peace that lasted for almost three centuries, and build the city of Edo (modern-day Tokyo) from a fishing town into one of the world's largest cities.

Ieyasu was born in 1543, the year of the water and the hare, and also the year that the Portuguese "discovered" Japan. After observing the Japanese culture and its complex political system, the Portuguese for the first time viewed an Asian people as equals, not as an inferior group to be conquered. Interestingly, the Japanese were not so kind in their assessment of the Europeans - they regarded as defects their large noses, messy beards, and rudimentary eating style and utensils. The Japanese bathed daily while the Portuguese went months without bathing. It is perhaps unsurprising that the Japanese called the Portuguese "Southern Barbarians."

At this time, Japan was divided into many fiefdoms, with powerful daimyo lords - and their armies of samurai warriors - battling for territory. Ieyasu was born into the samurai class, an honor bestowed on only 10% of the Japanese population. In other words, one could not simply decide to become a samurai. But with the honor of being born into the samurai class came a deep, lifelong obligation. Many Samurai boys, Ieyasu included, were given up as part of the intricate game of feudal politics. There was deep distrust between various political factions; giving a child was a way to guarantee or solidify one's intentions. Ieyasu's father gave him as a "hostage" to a powerful daimyo, and the two would never again meet. But even as a hostage, samurai boys were privileged - they traveled in style and were educated.

This education included training in the art of kendo - the way of the sword - which among other things exposed Ieyasu to the rigors of unending training and taught him to remain clearminded in the face of danger and to accept death stoically. Ieyasu was also trained in the Chinese and Japanese classics, martial arts, and military strategy. This education taught him above all the philosophy of the samurai lifestyle. At the age of 15, Ieyasu became a man and was given the right to carry the two samurai swords - the larger katana sword and a smaller sword, called the wakizashi. Once samurai became men, their swords would never leave their sides, and would even be kept by their pillows at night.

True glory for a samurai came on the battlefield, defending his lord. The samurai had to be ready to be killed and die for honor at anytime. There is a Japanese analogy that suggests samurai are like cherry blossoms - very presentable, but it only takes one storm for them to blow away.

Knowing when - and how - to die was crucially important for a samurai. On the battlefield, during the last moment of life one must show his control and die with honor. Outside of dying in battle, the most common death for a samurai was through a highly scripted suicide routine called harikari (also called Seppuku). A samurai would carry out harikari for many reasons, ranging from a loss in battle to angering his lord. The samurai would write his death poem and, without expression, stab himself in the abdomen with his sword. Any indication of pain or suffering would undermine the honor of the death... one samurai wrote:

For the samurai to learn
There's only one thing,
One last thing -
To face death unflinchingly.

By his twenties, Ieyasu had become battle-hardened and had been exposed to death. When his lord died, Ieyasu made the decision to return to his homeland and reclaim his title as a daimyo (an independent lord). At the time the most powerful daimyo was Nobunaga, who had gained control of about half of Japan. Ieyasu and his eventual rival, Hideyoshi, were both loyal to Nobunaga until his death. Hideyoshi became the most powerful, and instead of fighthing, Ieyasu made a series of savvy moves, including offering his second son to Hideyoshi to show his allegiance.

Perhaps the biggest risk Ieyasu took was accepting a deal from Hideyoshi that gave Ieyasu a few provinces (including Edo) in exchange for his submission. This would serve the dual purpose of both keeping Ieyasu as an ally and keeping him far from the political center of Osaka. However Ieyasu used the distance to his advantage, as it gave him more autonomy from Hideyoshi.

Hideyoshi did not have a male heir until the age of 60, and when he died his son was only 5. Before his death, Hideyoshi made a deal with Ieyasu and four other leaders to oversee the country until his son was old enough to take power. Ieyasu swore allegiance to Hideyoshi's son. Soon after Hideyoshi's death, however, Ieyasu began a campaign to rule all of Japan, culminating in arguably the most historic battle in Japanese history: the Battle of Sekigahara. Severely outnumbered, Ieyasu sent his troops into battle with this rallying cry: "there are two ways to come out of battle: with the head of the enemy or without your own." Ieyasu's army won, and the era of warring states had finally ended. Three years later the emperor bestowed the title of shogun to Ieyasu, making him the undisputed ruler of Japan.

Ieyasu quickly eliminated foreigners from Japan and outlawed Christianity (many of the Europeans were there in an effort to convert the Japanese). His only remaining problem was the son of Hideyoshi, Hideyori, who was growing older and to whom Ieyasu had pledged his life and subservience. The young Hideyori began to assemble forces in Osaka, and Ieyasu decided he would have to go back on his word. In 1614 he accused Hideyori of subversion and decided to attack. Hideyori had tens of thousands of loyal warriors, and the castle of Osaka was thought to be impregnable. After a stalemate, Ieyasu decided to try a different tactic - he sent a woman samuri to negotiate a truce with Hideyori's mother. He offered a safehaven for all troops if Hideyori agreed not to fight, and signed this pledge with his own blood. Hideyori's mother convinced him to accept the deal. As soon as the fighting stopped, Ieyasu filled the moats with dirt and stormed the castle, slaughtering everyone inside.

The samurai battle ritual calls for the decapitation of all enemy warriors, which are then cleaned and placed together as a sign of respect. It is estimated that 100,000 heads were assembled following the victory at Sekigahara. Hideyori refused to surrender, and committed Seppuku.

The choice to go back on his word was problematic for Ieyasu. It is believed that he deeply regretted having to eliminate Hideyori, and was said to have done penance by writing the name of Buddha 10,000 times on scrolls of parchment. However, it is clear that Ieyasu thought the dynasty and lasting peace was worth the dishonor of eliminating Hideyori. Indeed, the peace that followed lasted through the industrialization of Japan in the 19th century.

Together the three famous samurai leaders, Nobunaga, Hideyoshi and Ieyasu are known as "The Three Unifiers." There is a Japanese parable that summarizes Ieyasu's strategy of outlasting the other powerful samurai leaders:

The three samurai are watching a cuckoo bird, waiting for it to sing. Nobunaga says to the bird: "If you don't sing, I will kill you." Hideyoshi says: "If you don't sing, I will make you." Ieyasu, however, says: "If you don't sing, I will wait for you to sing."

I think my biggest lesson from this post involves the extreme patience of Ieyasu. As part of a borderline narcissistic generation that has come to expect real time gratification, it is enlightening to see how decades of patience and work resulted in Ieyasu's ultimate victory. It is clear to me that his strategy and tactics, as well as the self-discipline prescribed by the samurai code, are useful guides and deserve further study.

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