I have just read three books involving Samurai, all written by Japanese.  This hardly makes me an expert.  In fact many years ago, I was working in a biochemistry lab and we had that summer a professor from Japan.  He was cheerful and friendly.  I liked him immensely.  He even invited my younger brother and me to his home to have a Japanese dinner prepared by his wife.  It was a wonderful occasion. 

We played at marbles once.  I tried to show him how I had learned how.  I would kneel, make a fist, tuck a marble (the shooter) inside my index finger and flip it out with my thumb.  I was not accurate then, nor had I been as a young child.  As we played, I don’t think I hit a single marble with my shooter.  His technique was different.  He would squat and throw the shooter overhand.  It seemed he couldn’t miss. 

Another time he undertook to teach me Japanese sword fighting.  We used glass pipettes.  They are long Pyrex tubes used to measure tiny amounts of liquid very accurately.  Pipettes are quite tough.  Still, the fact that I was sword fighting with a glass tube rather inhibited my style, which was to swing with great force.  It made no difference, though.  It quickly because obvious that I, in spite of years of practice, was no match for him. 

I learned more about swordplay during that brief session than in all three books combined. 

So I read the books.  Of course I read them in from my own perspective.  The question was, “What is this society like.  Specifically, what is there about the society that indicates where along the trajectory from country boys to city boys to extinct are the managers, the bureaucrats of the society.  It turns out that at the times the books were written the Samurai were in fact administrators rather than soldiers.  (That may be why they had little to say about swordplay.)  They were just the ones I wanted to know about.  So what was their outlook, their life expectancy as a power structure?

The first book was Hagakure (“Hidden Leaves” or some variant) by Yamamoto Tsunetomo.  (The family name comes first.)  translated by William Scott Wilson and published by Kodansha International in 1979.  Tsunetomo lived from 1659 to 1719.  In his professional life as a samurai he had served in the Saga region in the far south of Japan.  His book is a collection of his sayings as recorded by a young scribe who visited him many times after retirement. 

As I sifted through the book for its tone, it seemed to me that women and children were not high on Tsunetomo’s list of interests.  There was more about dress, makeup and tea services than about family.  Women, it seems, were a bad idea altogether.  There is advice on how to break up with your boyfriend.  It sounded like the description of Greece by a Greek just before they were overrun by the Romans.  So I would have guessed that the clan Tsunetomo served didn’t have another generation ahead of them.  But when I check out the name Nabeshima – the name of that family – they are still in evidence as influential people at least until 1871.  Oh well.  Ought for one. 

The next book was Musui’s Story (an autobiography) by Katsu Kokichi (names being changeable with conditions), translated by Teruko Craig and published by University of Arizona in 1988.  Tsunetomo lived from 1802 to 1859.  In his professional life he had served nobody but himself.  He never had a regular job but simply hustled.  Buying and selling swords seemed to have been his most honest as well as most lucrative way of making ends meet. 

The book is swaggering and boastful and one is tempted no to believe a word of it, but helpful footnotes keep tying his tales in with documented history.  He was of a middling samurai family, but evidently his reputation for getting into mischief prevented him from getting the kind of administrative work his family was expected to do.  Again women and children play little part in his story.  Brawls are incessant.  He is extravagant, keen to be seen to be rich and self indulgent.  He is able to make friends. 

He is a charming rogue.  One can’t help liking him through his book.  And he apologizes profusely for his misspent life.  But somehow the rollicking tale seems less like terminal fertility collapse than Hagakure does.  I would give his power structure another couple of generations.  I see that the Togukawa period, of which he was part, collapsed in 1868.  Ought for two, but who’s counting? 

The third book was Bushido by Imazo Nitobe published by Lees & Biddle Company in 1900.  Nitobe lived from 1862 to 1933.  He was no samurai, but evidently he thought highly of them; in fact he was a Quaker.  Bushido is the samurai code of proper conduct, and it is presented in a sympathetic tone.

The tone is moderate.  Women and children are highly esteemed.  Unlike the other books, there is nothing outrageous.  This, I would have assumed, is the voice of a mature but vigorous culture with maybe a couple hundred years of glory ahead of it.

But in fact when the author died, Japan was within a few years of getting into a war with the United States.  Yes, yes.  I know.  In order to tame Japan the United States had to deploy the largest fighting force the world has ever seen.  And they used the atomic bomb, which no nation has been hit with before or since.  But that begs the issue.  That war from the Japanese side is just the sort of catastrophic failure of judgment that competent administrators are supposed to keep you out of. 

Ought for three.

It has been quite the humbling experience.  I cannot tell from a book just what a society is in for, even after the fact.  Only the numbers tell the tale.

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