Horse and Bow
Samurai by Michael Wert
In Samurai, Michael Wert traces the warriors of Japan from the early Heian and Kamakura periods to the emergence of a formal samurai class in the Muromachi and Warrior States periods, their Tokugawa-era decline, and finally Meiji-era dissolution. This is not just a book about military history, but the entire historical and social arc of the samurai, including the very idea of what it meant to be one.
The first thing to note is that until the Tokugawa period, there wasn’t a formal class of warriors and no single model for how warriors organised themselves. Some were patronised by noble families, to whom they provided a variety of services, including warfare, law and order, and administration. Others became pirates, brigands, or strongmen in a power vacuum. Familial and regional feuds might draw men into picking sides. But there was no shared warrior identity; of these early warriors, the general term bushi is more appropriate than samurai.
During the Gempei War, the Miniamoto and Taira clans fought each other for dominance over the imperial court in Kyoto. Miniamoto no Yoritomo emerged victorious in 1185. Shortly thereafter, the emperor conferred the title of shogun upon him. Because of this, as well as his military prowess, his practical ability to keep law and order, and his personal charisma, warriors flocked to Kamakura to pledge themselves as his retainers, as which they were obliged to fight his enemies. Thus they began to develop a shared sense of identity based on their role as warriors. Many warriors were opportunists and scoundrels. Some pocketed money from their tax-collecting duty. Other regional strongmen outside Kamakura “declared” themselves retainers of Yoritomo as a means of legitimating their ambitions.
After Yoritomo’s death his wife’s family - the Hōjō - exerted de facto control over the shogun as his regents. Their actions consolidated power in a nascent warrior class. First of all they appointed warrior-managers across Japan. When the Mongols attempted to invade Japan, these warrior-managers were allowed to levy taxes on their own to raise money to fight the Mongols. The Hōjō also tried to standardise tax and rice collection in a legal code. While the shogun’s reach was never particularly strong outside Kamakura, this legal code was an influential blueprint, demonstrating the primacy of the shogun - who drew his authority from his feudalistic bonds - over that of the emperor. Lastly, the Hōjō popularised primogeniture, according to which all land would be inherited by the eldest son, instead of being distributed among all children. This allowed clans to concentrate power, instead of it being diffused across multiple branches of the family tree every generation.e
But the emperor grew resentful of the Kamakura shogun’s powers. This led to a war in 1331 between those loyal to the emperor and those loyal to the shogun. Thanks to the efforts of the Ashikaga clan, the emperor re-established himself as the supreme political authority, but not longer after this was usurped by Takauji Ashikaga who installed himself as shogun. This event was very important as it provided a basis on which power could be legitimately transferred back to the emperor in the 19th century.
The Ashikaga owed their success to their personal relations with the regional warrior families outside Kamakura. They promised to redistribute land, wealth, and power after the overthrow of the Kamakura shogun. It didn’t stop there though: far-flung governors and clans - such as in Kyūshū and Kamakura - assumed rights to levy taxes, enforce laws, and collect fees, through which they established bigger armies to enforce their power. Out of this emerged the regional daimyo (warlords).
Up to this period, the supreme weapon in battle was the bow. Battles were often more like skirmishes, dominated by mounted archers. This is even reflected in the traditional term for the military arts: kyūba no michi - way of the horse and bow. Swords were either small side-arms or large cleavers designed to smash and break horses’ legs. Armour reflected the dominance of the bow: heavy padded cloth covered with lacquered wood. Warriors would paint their armour bright colours and wear terrifying masks, in emulation of the warrior-heroes in traditional plays. Wert compares this to the yakuza, whose outfits and mannerisms followed the trends set in yakuza movies (and not the other way around).
Warriors were never particularly wealthy. To earn money, they had to petition their lords for compensation after killing his enemies. This was done by collecting heads, a practice which emerged out of hunting down criminals, but which carried over to the battlefield, where warriors attempted to collect the heads of famous or high-ranking warriors. This made them vulnerable, so some lords started a “cut and toss” system, where the details of who-killed-whom was to be figured out after the battle. Some shameful warriors would attempt to cheat this system. It was considered absolutely disgraceful to be caught doing this!
The Ashikaga were the pre-eminent daimyo until they had a bad run of leaders. A succession crisis triggered the Ōnin war. The ensuing chaos left a power vacuum for the next century and a half. While the Ashikaga were nominally the supreme political authority, in practice daimyo did as they pleased. There was also an important shift in military tactics. Blocks of men moved in rows, armed with pikes. The musket was reverse engineered by a local warlord when a Portuguese ship washed up on the island of Tanegashima in 1543, offering a powerful advantage to those warlords who incorporated it into their armies.
Nobunaga Oda emerged as the pre-eminent warlord. He first killed most of his family members, who could be rivals to his power. Then he dissolved the Ashikaga shogunate. To consolidate his power, he massacred the Ikko-Ikki, a confederation of peasant leagues and temples who followed the Jōdo Shinshū branch of Buddhism, which opposed the rule of daimyo. Nobunaga was betrayed by one of his retainers, Mitsuhide Akechi, and was succeeded by another, Hideyoshi Toyotomi. Hideyoshi also failed to unify Japan. He squandered many of his resources in unsuccessful campaigns against Korea, which served as an opportunity to send his enemies - regional warlords and Christians - to their death overseas. After his death, another of Nobunaga’s followers, Ieyasu Tokugawa, established himself as the pre-eminent daimyo. He established a new shogunate in 1600 after defeating his enemies at the Battle of Sekigahara.
The Tokugawa established a new warrior class, to whom the word samurai became firmly attached. Land surveys classified everyone as commoner or warrior, and this was a fixed category: if your parents were samurai, so were you. The samurai were both the warriors and administrators of the domains of the lord under whom they served. Only they were allowed to carry weapons. Since the times of Hideyoshi Toyotomi and Nobunaga Oda, “sword hunts” would be carried out by the shogun in order to confiscate any weapons held by commoners, which was a way of preventing any kind of uprising by peasants, monks, or commoners.
The borders of these domains were not fixed. The Tokugawa established and dissolved domains for various reasons, usually to consolidate power and weaken their rivals. They often moved daimyo to new territories to weaken their power base. Samurai might be elevated to daimyo to prevent the concentration of power in one particular region. The shogun also enforced primogeniture everywhere and had to personally approve all marriages of daimyo and all heirs. If a daimyo died and the shogun didn’t like his heir, he could dissolve the domain and redistribute it.
The shogun also engaged in a practice known as “alternate attendance”. His followers had to visit Edo (the shogun’s capital) every year. This flowed out of an ancient tradition known as the hostage exchange, wherein the wives and heirs of daimyo had to live in the capital. They were allowed to visit their families and domains, but only under strict conditions. The system carried over to the Tokugawa period to prevent rebellions from forming. The travel and living costs were also a huge drain on the daimyo, with 50% to 75% of their budget being spent on alternate attendance.
The lords immediately under the shogun were classified according to whether they were vassal lords (fūdai) or outer domains (tozama). Fūdai were those who fought for the Tokugawa at Sekigahara; tozama were those who did not. The tozama were treated unfairly and excluded from political decision-making. The shogun drew his advisors from the vassal lords, especially the shimpan, who were from clans with kinship ties to the Tokugawa.
While the Tokugawa exercised enormous power, in many ways theirs was a truly feudalistic system. Domains had the power to raise their own taxes, establish their own currencies, and write and enforce their own laws. Freedom of movement across domains was rigorously controlled by the shogun to prevent the formation of regional armies that might challenge his authority. If a samurai crossed domains after committing a crime, only the shogun had the authority to order his arrest. Sometimes this played against the shogun: during the Shimabara rebellion, some daimyo refused to mobilise their armies for fear they might be punished for leaving their domains.
Foreign affairs were different. These were conducted by the clan closest to the country in question, which made Tsushima and Satsuma domains important, for they were the closest to Ryūkyū (Okinawa) and Korea. The Tokugawa did monopolise foreign trade though, which was limited to the port city of Nagasaki on an extremely strict basis.
Samurai were loyal to their immediate lords, not to the shogun or to Japan as a whole. If the shogun issued an order, it was to the lord immediately beneath him. If that lord refused to obey the order, his samurai would not override him in following the shogun’s order. Such was the loyalty of samurai that if their lord died and their domain was dissolved, samurai would become masterless (rōnin), loyal to their lord even in death. Rōnin were often a cause of social and political unrest, particularly towards the end of the Tokugawa period.
Being a samurai was a hereditary affair. They had privileges the commoners did not. They took surnames, which identified themselves as belonging to a particular clan. They had to live in specific castle towns, which were regional centres of political power. They grew up in households staffed by commoners, and had to maintain a retinue whose size was in keeping with the reputation of their clan; the samurai took their reputation very seriously. Maintaining a household they could not afford impoverished them though, especially those from minor clans who did not have easy pathways to guaranteed employment. Large families were a hindrance more than an asset; abortion and infanticide were common.
As part of their upbringing, samurai learned how to read and write, immersed themselves in the classical texts - especially the works of the Chinese school of Neo-Confucianism - and trained in the martial arts in private dōjō or special schools established by individual daimyo. Early friendships were important, as this would determine who you could count upon in later life. Young boys might be romantically courted by older boys, who established themselves as mentors.
Entrance into the samurai class was difficult but possible. Rich merchants who made donations to the domain might be made samurai so they could be taken on as economic advisors. Commoners could also marry into a warrior family and become its heir; despite the shogun’s strict inheritance rules, families often lied about who was the eldest son to get around it, and the rules were later relaxed and finally abolished. A poor samurai might also “sell” his status by adopting a wealthy commoner.
The Tokugawa period was peaceful, and with only a finite number of administrative jobs that usually fell to certain privileged families, many samurai struggled to make ends meet. They usually had some kind of hereditary stipend/allowance, but this was not enough, particularly when they were in alternate attendance. Some wanted their allowance gambling, drinking, or touring famous pilgrimage sites when they were bored. Others stopped being samurai to become teachers, poets, scholars or priests. Despite their hereditary privileges and aristocratic self-image, most samurai were as likely to be impoverished drunks, scoundrels, poets, labourers, and menaces. Wert mentions a particularly funny stereotype of this in Lust, Commerce, and Corruption, a memoir by a Samurai called Buyō:
They head for guard duty wearing outfits that they have conned the pawnbroker into temporarily restoring to them. Once they have come back from guard duty, they return the outfits directly to the pawnbroker. Their servants mock them for this.
Samurai had become “sword-wearing bureaucrats”, hardly prepared for war, and often not even involved in catching criminals - this lowly task was often done on an ad-hoc basis by outcasts or other marginalised commoners.
According to Neo-Confucian texts, the samurai were to be well-versed in both the scholarly arts (bun) and the martial arts (bu). But in an age of peace, other than the ritualised performances of martial arts, there were no real opportunities for samurai to illustrate their martial prowess and live up to their heritage. The martial arts were more of a social and cultural activity, a chance for them to reconnect with an idealised warrior past: “They idealized the legacy passed down from the Warring States-era predecessors and honored fictitious ties to famous clans such as the Minamoto or Kyoto nobles like the Fujiwara.” (78).
Many people - both commoners and samurai - acknowledged that samurai fell far short of the idealised picture of perfect loyalty and aristocratic virtue. If a samurai brought dishonour or shame upon himself, ritualised suicide (seppuku) - popularised by a famous drama called The 47 Rōnin - was a way to stop the shame spreading to his family and clan. Samurai who took themselves too seriously were often mocked in the arts, especially through toilet humour: the samurai might belong to a superior class, yet all people had the same biological urges. This was a way to cut across class divisions in a way that belittled the samurai. Teacher and writer Hiraga Gennai did exactly this in a satirical essay, pointing out that only a samurai would be so uptight that he’d rather kill himself than be caught farting in public.
Others were worried about the decline of virtue among the samurai. They connected the spiritual impoverishment of the samurai to economic decline and the influence of commoner values on the samurai culture. The Tokugawa tried to promote the image of the samurai - frugal, pure, and virtuous - by censoring texts, restricting merchant activities, and encouraging the samurai to reconnect with their rural origins, away from the sordid immorality of the city.
They couldn’t stop the co-option or manipulation of samurai culture by commoners though. The commoners were exposed to samurai through plays, books, and manuals. Common culture invented and re-invented the samurai. The wealthy emulated samurai culture, reading their manuals, adopting their codes of honour, and learning martial arts. The prohibition on commoners bearing arms was relaxed. This was never fully stamped out, but it had to be relaxed during the 1800s, when social and economic disorder caused an increase in unrest. Local headmen formed their own peasant militias so villages could defend themselves.
And then in 1853, Matthew Perry, an American commodore, appeared off the coast of Edo. He demanded an end to Japan’s isolationism and the establishment of new commercial and diplomatic ties with the United States. He would return in one year with a fleet of ships to await the shogun’s answer.
This scared the Tokugawa. Their ruler, the sickly and ineffectual Iesada Tokugawa, deferred to his senior adviser Abe Masahide. For the first time, all daimyo were asked for their opinions on how to proceed. When Matthew Perry returned, the shogun accepted his demands and the country was opened up to the west. But this action revealed the weakness of the Tokugawa, not only by their surrender to Matthew Perry, but also in the fact that they sought advice from their traditional enemies, the tozama lords.
Around this period, a new theory of sovereignty became popular. It viewed Takauji Ashikaga as an usurper and held that the shogun ruled only at the behest of the emperor. One reason for this view was the popularity of an influential history of Japan at the time. Written in Mino Domain, it chronicled the past according to the reign of the emperors, in emulation of the Neo-Confucian style from China. This framed history in a way that gave primacy to the emperor, who had been a neglected political figure since the Ashikaga shogunate.
Another reason for this view of a sovereign emperor was that he had been willing to speak up against the shogun’s humiliating dealings with the west. In 1863, he ordered the shogun to expel all foreigners. It was very popular. Samurai from across Japan flocked to his court in Kyoto, especially rōnin, low-ranking samurai, and those from the tozama (outer) domains. This was an alarming development to the Tokugawa. A genuine political threat had emerged, exacerbated by the opening of trade and borders. Money, technology, and new military methods flooded into the country in ways the Tokugawa could not control. The tozama, bitter about their treatment by the Tokugawa, developed new standing armies with European technology and western training. Amid a backdrop of soaring political violence, they pledged their allegiance to the emperor.
In 1866 the shogun was assassinated. His successor, Yoshinobu Tokugawa, willingly returned the title of shogun to Emperor Meiji, beginning the “Meiji restoration”. By doing this, Yoshinobu was acknowledging the changing winds of fortune, and hoped to secure a prominent place for the Tokugawa in a new political order, with the emperor as sovereign. But the tozama lords - especially those of Chōshū and Satsuma - pushed for a complete dissolution of the Tokugawa realms. Yoshinobu launched a pre-emptive attack on them at Kyoto, claiming that they were attempting to manipulate the emperor. Despite his superior numbers, he was soundly defeated, and had to willingly surrender his domains to emperor Meiji.
For the next few decades, Japan was embroiled in civil unrest, as various regions attempted a futile resistance against the new imperial regime. The main resistance was in Aizu from a coalition of lords, many with ancestral ties to the Tokugawa. After Yoshinobu’s surrender, several thousand hardliners seized control of his ships and sailed north to Hakodate, where they established a short-lived American-style republic, in which only the samurai were enfranchised.
The convulsions of this period cannot simply be reduced to samurai vs. emperor. It was a matter of those loyal to the emperor vs. those loyal to the old feudalistic system; those who wished to modernise vs. those who did not; the old tozama lords against the Tokugawa; rural vs. urban; samurai vs. commoner. Samurai found themselves at different times fighting for and against the emperor for different reasons, even though they stood to lose their hereditary privileges.
On taking power, Meiji abolished the old domain system. He extended the right to bear arms and partake in the military to all men, and replaced the stipends of the samurai with national bank bonds. Some entrepreneuring samurai used their bonds to start new businesses and factories, but many struggled to adapt to the new world. Commerce was traditionally seen as a lowly pursuit not befitting a samurai, so many were inexperienced at managing finances. Some fell into poverty and had to suffer the ultimate indignity: the selling of their prized weapons, armours, and family heirlooms.
Popular culture swung against the samurai, which was now seen as an embarrassing anachronism. Most people sought instead to keep up with new ideas, culture, and fashion that had been flooding in from the west. Samurai culture remained influential among politicians, generals, and philosophers though, many of whom sought to capture the samurai spirit in their writings, speeches, and manifestos. Nitobe Inazo called this spirit bushido, and said it emphasised martial prowess, self-sacrifice, and love of the emperor. Ozaki Yukio had earlier described it as like a Japanese version of chivalry or gentlemanliness, applicable to many domains, not just the military or political arts. Others, like Inoue Tesujirō, developed a nationalistic understanding of the samurai spirit, the essence of which he saw as residing in a love of nation, service to the emperor and self-sacrifice. This was an important intellectual basis for the ultranationalism that swept Japan into war with China and the Allied forces in World War II.
Michael Wert’s book is short and sweet. At just under 110 pages, it succinctly captures the rise and fall of Japan’s warrior-ruler class. He weaves together multiple historical sources to give a picture not just of the methods of war and government, but also something of the life of what individual samurai must have been like, and how the notion of samurai was never fixed but rather evolved over time.
If I do have a critique, it might be one inherent to any book that attempts to pass over a thousand years of history in 110 pages. If you’re not already familiar with Japanese history, you may struggle to remember the various actors, emperors, shoguns, brothers, and cousins zooming past you. This is worst at the beginning of the book. But this is all necessary to explain how the samurai came to be as a hereditary class, and once you get to the Muromachi Period, the book becomes much more interesting.
Wert often refrains from deploying more specific Japanese vocabulary in favour of general English descriptions. This is to keep the book accessible. But he also never explains where the term samurai actually comes from; he just uses it instead of bushi from the Tokugawa period onwards. This is a bit confusing. Some etymological history would have been useful here.
But overall, Wert’s writing treads a fine line between light and detailed, and in it you can see the developments of Japanese history quite clearly. I would highly recommend this book if you have any interest in Japanese history.