What did it mean to be samurai?
Over the centuries they were prevalent in Japan, the concept was quite open to interpretation. Malleable may be too strong a word, for there were many constants - a stoic and reserved sword-bearing man who valued the honour of his name and clan above all - and yet change was undeniable. When the samurai began to emerge as a dominant class in the eleventh and twelfth centuries they were simply those who were the best at hitting things with bow or sword, and yet by the end of their era in the mid 1800s many could be fairly described as little more than heavily armed bureaucrats.
The period this novel depicts happens to be a time of great upheaval: the transitory years as samurai society evolved from a meritocratic order of warriors into a caste that one was either born in to or forbidden. The warlord Hideyoshi Toyotomi, who effectively ruled Japan from 1585 to his death in 1598, was the great instigator of this process, starting off by forbidding any non-samurai to bear weapons early in his reign. Though it would be a few decades later that codified law would be put in place by the Tokugawa Shogunate, it was this that truly began the separation of the populace into rigid strata of samurai, peasant, artisan, merchant, and lowest of all the corpsehandlers.
The great and unavoidable irony of course is that Toyotomi was himself born a peasant, and tried a number of vocations in his life before he enrolled as a soldier and discovered his aptitude for war, clawing his way upwards through the ranks to the highest position of all. Though lineage had always been given prestige, by the decree of a commoner it now became everything, much to the carefully hidden disgust of a lot of his contemporaries and descendents.
Though this kind of radical alteration tended to happen in sporadic violent bursts of activity and incident rather than a steady and continual progression, it was nevertheless the case that different ideals of samuraihood waxed and waned from decade to decade, even from city to city. Attitudes towards dress, towards the spiritual or practical importance of the sword, towards art - some Lords encouraged their samurai to study poetry because they thought the practice civilizing, whereas others rejected it as a feminine distraction - all varied with time and location.
The belief that Munisai espouses throughout this novel could be taken as a very conservative, traditional archetype which suggests that the point of samurai was to serve unto the death that could be commanded by their Lord at any time, and by that death prove their conviction and strength of spirit. Much of this is illustrated in one of the most important works on samurai culture entitled Hagakure (loosely: Hidden by Leaves), a collection of thoughts by Tsunetomo Yamamoto that was first published around 1716. Yamamoto was a samurai who had been forbidden to follow his Lord into death (a sometimes-observed traditional practice), something he was deeply troubled by. He spent his last years musing on what the correct course for a samurai should have been. In true Japanese fashion he refrains from making a definite conclusion, but the general implication is that to live Lordless was nothing, to die for one divine, and to live as though that death had already been achieved the key to a higher purity.
The man that would come to be known as Musashi Miyamoto, however, was almost diametrically opposed to this. He spent most of his life wandering Japan without a Lord, searching for enlightenment and honing what would come to be a legendary skill with his swords. Along the way he would enrage as many people as he inspired. The quote that opens this novel:
Many people claim the resolute acceptance of death is the way of the samurai. However, these people are wrong; warriors have no monopoly on this virtue. Monks, women and peasants too can face death bravely. No; the true distinction of a samurai lies in overcoming other men and bringing glory to himself.
is taken from his collection of thoughts on strategy and bearing in life, Go Rin No Sho (The Book of Five Rings), and illustrates his stance quite succinctly; though he was unafraid of death he did not long for it, instead yearning to be a master of all things for and by himself.
There were universal beliefs though, and one of the utmost and most relevant to this novel was that of vengeance. If someone wronged you or someone you were bound to by blood or oath it was simply inconceivable for a samurai not to pursue an equal or worse revenge. An interesting theory suggests that (prior to its prohibition by law) Christianity did not flourish in Japan as it did in other Asian countries visited by missionaries because the samurai could neither understand nor respect a God that preached forgiveness.
Grudges and slights were so important they were passed down over generations; after the battle of Sekigahara that ends the novel the defeated Mori clan would ritualistically open its subsequent annual gatherings of elders with some variation of: Has the time come to avenge ourselves upon the Tokugawa? This they did for over two hundred and fifty years, the answer always being no, until eventually the dynastic Shogunate showed signs of weakness. Then the ancestors of the men who had actually lost the battle sprang into action and became one of the foremost agitators in the sequence of events that eventually brought down the Tokugawa.
In doing so though, of course, they also brought about the end of the era of the samurai - the new post-Tokugawa of Japan of the 1860s would model itself on European democracies, and one of the first things to go was the right to wear swords. In itself this, I think, is a fine illustration of the samurai: devoutly loyal, even at the cost of their own destruction.
So, what did it mean to be samurai? Perhaps it is best to think of the idea of it as a rock that has sat in a garden of carefully raked sand through centuries; though it is the same rock, different men have seen it in different lights from different angles. Willingly or unwillingly the men all die. The rock endures.
However, I feel the most pertinent fact that is often overlooked when one thinks of bygone eras and castes is that regardless of which ideals were venerated at whichever time - beneath it all lay a human being. Of the millions of people to ever be called samurai, their ability or readiness to live up to whatever standards were set before them was determined entirely by themselves.
Of the early life of Musashi Miyamoto remarkably little is known for certain. He was born at the end of centuries of civil war where definite objective records outside of those of clan and Lord and battle are almost non-existent, and furthermore so many tales have been told of him over the centuries that separating truth from the apocryphal becomes challenging.
This is both a blessing for the novelist, as a free canvas is given to tell the story he wants, and a curse as the historical note begins to resemble a confession of sorts. So I may as well get it out of the way: most of the plot of this book was made up. It is not an accurate biography because there can be so such thing - instead I have used Musashi as a cipher to portray larger aspects of the samurai as a whole.
Regarding his birth, the best we can say is that Musashi was born sometime around 1584, and that in his childhood he was called either Bennosuke or Takezo - the characters of his name can be read either way. From infancy he was afflicted with some form of rash or eczema that left him marked for life.
His father was almost certainly Munisai Shinmen, a talented swordsman who was awarded a title variously translated as Best in Japan, Nation's Finest or Unrivalled Under the Sun. The dispute arises from the fact that Munisai's grave states that he died in 1582, two years before the supposed birth of his son, and at the same time there are also accounts of him surviving well into the seventeenth century. It is a confusing state of affairs and there are many theories - none of which can be conclusively proved - but that Musashi identifies himself as Musashi Shinmen at the start of his treatise Go Rin No Sho strongly suggests the truth of his lineage.
Father and son did not get along. This was probably not due to infidelity on the part of Musashi's mother, for nothing is known about Yoshiko save for her name, but rather a simple clash of characters. Munisai was a severe man and Musashi seems to have been an unruly child; there is an account of the young boy taunting his father whilst he trained to such an extent that Munisai snapped and hurled a sword at him.
At the age of eight, perhaps for his own protection, the boy was duly sent to live with his uncle Dorinbo (sometimes called Dorin), a Buddhist priest who raised him. The temple of Amaterasu that he tends to in my novel is based on an actual shrine in Ise, one of the holiest sites of the native Japanese religion of Shinto and said to be where Amaterasu hid herself away from the world for twenty years. Rather than being burnt it is peacefully dismantled and then reassembled with freshly consecrated wood every two decades. As of this writing the temple is due for its next renewal in 2013.
Dorinbo's tutelage does not seem to have tempered Musashi; his first lethal duel at the age of thirteen is even more audacious than how I have described it. An arrogant swordsman of no particular renown named Kihei Arima came to the village where Musashi lived and posted an open challenge for anyone to fight him. The young Musashi accepted, writing his name on the board. When Dorinbo found out about this he begged with Arima to forego the duel, groveling on the ground before him. Musashi used this distraction to his advantage, charged wielding a warstaff and proceeded to beat Arima to death.
The notion of a thirteen-year-old fighting an adult does seem absurd and a gross physical mismatch, but this was not the case - we know from surviving relics that as an adult Musashi stood at a little over six feet tall. This is large even by modern Japanese standards, but considering that the average height of his contemporaries was around five feet two inches, it is reasonable to assume that the young Musashi at the very least stood eye-to-eye with Arima.
A year or so after this duel Musashi left his village, most likely to the relief of those around him, and there we lose track of him for the next several years. It is presumed he wandered the country apparently fighting duels and studying the sword, already eager to develop his skill with the blade. There was no quest for vengeance as Munisai's death, the clan Nakata and their part in it are entirely my creation.
The seppuku Munisai performs within this novel could be considered quite a timeless and all-purpose method, for want of a better term, but the ways varied and evolved like some kind of morbid artform. Rather then self-disembowelment followed by beheading (and samurai argued whether it was better to sever the head entirely or to leave it attached by a flap of skin so as to present a better corpse), sometimes men would simply stab themselves through the heart, slit their own throats or bleed themselves slowly to death with numerous shallow cuts across their body; all manner of gruesome acts of atonement are recorded. Conversely towards the end of their era, perhaps having eventually exhausted all the methods of self-mutilation, the act became symbolic - many samurai did nothing more than tap themselves on the stomach with a fan or mock blade before receiving a (supposedly) painless decapitation.
Tournaments such as the Gathering were very much real. Not only was it good practice for war, samurai thrived on displaying their skill and bravery, and such competitions offered them a chance to do so without fear of seeming arrogant. The horseback one I have described is based on the Soma-Nomoai event of Fukushima, where samurai would race to catch a banner shot high into the air attached to rockets.
Finally we come to the battle of Sekigahara in the autumn of 1600. Whether Musashi was actually there is again alas of some dispute; Musashi himself neglects to mention any participation. Yet there are sources that claim that he fought with distinction under Lord Hideie Ukita, and conversely others that say he rather dramatically stormed off before the fighting, bellowing that he served no man.
Regardless of his presence, this was a battle that shaped the course of Japanese history for the next two hundred and fifty years, handing effective control of the country to the Tokugawa clan. It is difficult to summate its importance in a few short paragraphs - this really was the culmination of decades of civil war and countless different tales of intrigue, plots and design. I have duly had to simplify things both here and in the novel.
The sides were relatively evenly matched with loosely eighty thousand warriors on either side, forces much larger than the norm for pitched battle but not quite as big as some of the more excessive sieges in Japanese history. Sekigahara itself was an odd location for the battle, being a small rural village cloistered in a mostly wooded valley where massing formations of troops and commanding them was difficult. Whereas I have depicted the Tokugawa arriving overnight, in reality it took about ten days for the armies to assemble and prepare themselves.
The battle itself was fairly chaotic. The first and most simple reason for this was that on the morning of the encounter a heavy fog descended, hindering communication. By the time it lifted battle had already been engaged in fits and bursts without any co-ordination across the lines. Secondly, these were both coalition forces - though they were nominally sworn to either Ieyasu Tokugawa or Ishida Mitsunari, it was in some cases a tenuous pledge. Many Lords saw a chance to attack enemies their clans had held grudges against for generations and instead of following orders charged wildly, disrupting any hope of unified strategy; vengeance, after all, was saintly. Thirdly, Tokugawa's strategy was almost entirely based around betrayal and deception. His agents and diplomats had been offering clemency and bribes to some of his enemies for months and years prior to this.
This plan would provide the significant turning point of the battle - the betrayal of Lord Hideaki Kobayakawa. He, along with Ukita, had the largest force present amongst the Eastern army, somewhere between a quarter and a third of all men there. Kobayakawa had agreed to join Tokugawa beforehand, but once the battle had begun in a rather cowardly manner he hesitated and watched it unfold, waiting to see who held the advantage before he committed to one side.
So evenly matched was the fighting that Kobayakawa could very well have proven a hero to either side. The combat dragged on from the early morning to just past midday; Tokugawa himself, renowned for being of a reserved and steady character even amongst samurai, was so nervous was he that he gnawed at his nails until they bled and started lashing out at his personal retinue. Eventually he ordered his arquebusiers to fire a blank volley upon Kobayakawa as a hanging threat, which had the desired effect - Kobayakawa promptly engaged his former allies.
The battle turns into a rout here, with the remaining Western Lords either fleeing or spontaneously trying to switch sides also. Fighting in isolated pockets went on well into the night as Tokugawa's men hunted the scattering enemy through the surrounding hills. The total number of dead is unknown, with estimations of anywhere between three or four thousand to fifty thousand.
What is known is that this is essentially the end of the period that is known as Sengoku (The Age of the Warring States/Country at War) and the beginning of the period called either the Tokugawa or Edo era. With most of his rival Lords killed or captured, this battle broke any real hope of stopping Ieyasu Tokugawa's ascent to Shogun. Though he would not officially receive the title until 1603, most historians regard Sekigahara as the start of his rule. His descendents would subsequently rule Japan until 1868.
But, as he and Musashi will find out in subsequent novels, the samurai were a stubborn lot. Just because they had no hope of stopping him did not mean that nobody would resist Tokugawa's rule.