The Forgotten Samurai

by Stephen Turnbull

To the popular mind the notion of 'the samurai' never seems to change throughout Japanese history. My book Warrior 29: Ashigaru 1467ľ1649 (Osprey, 2001) shows how wrong this idea is, because in the ten years between Hideyoshi's capture of Odawara castle in 1590 and the triumph of the Tokugawa at the battle of Sekigahara in 1600, Japan's samurai class was transformed fundamentally and forever.

This process is conventionally regarded as being a very positive one, because the ashigaru, the foot soldiers who made up the bulk of any samurai army, were re-defined as samurai and therefore finally received the recognition they had long deserved for their crucial role in achieving victory on the battlefield. Armies therefore became more professional and efficient. But the great change had a negative side, and in this article I shall also describe how it affected those warriors whom we may term 'the forgotten samurai'.

Defining a samurai

Prior to the time of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the definition of who was a samurai and who was not was a very loose one to which no general paid much attention. The ashigaru, after all, originally owed their name to men who were absconding peasants and joined an army for the prospect of loot. In time their activities became controlled, but the army of a daimy˘ (the equivalent of a European feudal lord) of the 16th century could be a very mixed bag. Leaders such as the famous Takeda Shingen commanded armies that were very 'professional' in their outlook and their operations, but they often had only a small a core of men who might be termed 'regular soldiers'. These warriors might be family members or hereditary retainers, and were often outnumbered by part-timers. The majority of the troops, therefore, in a typical samurai army, both high-ranking samurai and ashigaru would fight for some of the year and do agricultural work the rest of the time. The troops of the Ch˘sokabe of Shikoku island were well known in this regard, and were said to do agricultural work in the paddy fields with their sandals attached to the shafts of their spears that were thrust into the ground, ready to be used at a moment's notice.

Such part-time soldiering was a very common feature in the Age of War. Many otherwise senior officers in a daimy˘'s army still clung to their roots in the soil, and none of their masters had any desire to separate them from it. Their local economic success was often heavily dependent upon part-time farmers, in just the same way that their military success was dependent on part-time soldiers who were happy to be rewarded with grants of land for their services. A successful daimy˘ was one who could balance these two vital functions.

The state of affairs began to change from about 1570, and one very important factor was the introduction of new weapons for the ashigaru. The first was the long spear, which sometimes reached the dimensions of the European pike. To put such a weapon into untrained hands was asking for trouble, and Oda Nobunaga's famous victory at Nagashino in 1575, when 3,000 arquebuses brought down the mounted samurai of the Takeda, illustrated that guns, too, might still be clumsy and inefficient things, but when issued to trained and disciplined squads they could produce devastating results.

The overall effect was to encourage training, discipline and weapon specialisation, and the time required to bring about all three inevitably cut into the rhythm of the agricultural year. For some daimy˘ balancing the equation proved impossible. Others. chiefly those with larger manpower resources to rely on, solved it through a division of labour between farmers and fighters, and it was the daimy˘ who chose this way who survived and prospered, until with the triumph of Toyotomi Hideyoshi the system reached its logical conclusion.

The personal life of Toyotoni Hideyoshi provides the neatest illustration of the process outlined above. Hideyoshi's father had been a farmer who had enlisted as an ashigaru in the service of Oda Nobunaga's father Oda Nobuhide. During a battle he was shot in the leg and forced to withdraw from all combat duties. As a result he lost the relationship he had with the Oda family and returned to the fields. His son, however, joined as an ashigaru just like his father, and rose through the ranks as he gained the confidence of Oda Nobunaga. When Nobunaga was murdered it was the loyal Hideyoshi that succeeded him, and went on to many further conquests to unify all Japan under his sword.

In 1588 Hideyoshi enacted the first of two ordinances that were to have a huge influence on the definition of a samurai. The first was the famous 'Sword Hunt', by which all weapons were to be confiscated from the peasantry and placed in the hands of the daimy˘ and their increasingly professional armies. By this act the means of making war were forcibly removed from anyone of whom Hideyoshi did not approve, because the Sword Hunt was much more than a search of farmers' premises. Minor daimy˘ whose loyalty was suspect, religious institutions that had the capacity for armed rebellion, and recalcitrant village headmen were all purged in an operation that has some parallels with Henry VIII's 'Dissolution of the Monasteries'.

The victims were told that the swords, spears and guns thus collected would not be wasted, but would be melted down to make nails for the enormous image of Buddha that Hideyoshi was erecting in Kyoto. The nation would therefore benefit from the operation in two ways. It would be spiritually blessed, and would be freed from the curses of war and rebellion which had caused such disruption and suffering in the past. It is, however, more than likely that the majority of the weapons seized were not actually destroyed but stored ready for future campaigns.

The Separation Edict, which followed in 1591, completed the process.The peasants had been disarmed, and there was now to be a total separation between the military function and the agricultural function on pain of death or banishment. The Separation Edict therefore defined the distinction between samurai and farmer that was to continue throughout the Tokugawa Period. It also allowed the potential for a reign of terror to be inflicted upon any local population that did not comply with Hideyoshi's wishes, a situation that was to apply almost immediately with the forced recruitment of peasants and fishermen for the forthcoming Korean invasion, which Hideyoshi launched in 1592. Yet the Separation Edict had changed the nature of such recruitment forever. No longer could a peasant like Hideyoshi enlist as an ashigaru and rise to be a general. From now on a peasant who was forced (or even volunteered) to do his duty would not carry out that function with a sword or gun in his hand, but with a cripplingly heavy pack on his back.

The ashigaru of the Tokugawa period

If the peasants were the losers in the process of redefinition, the winners were undoubtedly the ashigaru. They were now part of the samurai class, full-time professional soldiers, and when Tokugawa Ieyasu assumed the title of Shogun in 1603 following his decisive victory at Sekigahara, he began a process to complete the social and legal separation with an actual physical separation. Ashigaru and samurai now lived in the barracks of the castle towns while the farmers stayed outside in the countryside. In theory it was a perfect system. All the samurai owed loyalty and service to their daimy˘, and all the daimy˘. whose territories had been extended, relocated or diminished according to which side they had been on at Sekigahara, owed allegiance to the Shogun.

In the castle towns a samurai's rank could be ascertained by looking up where he lived on a map, because just as Edo Castle, the seat of the Shogun, was surrounded by the daimy˘'s yashiki (mansions), the daimy˘'s own castle towns back in the provinces followed the same pattern. Around their castles, where the family and some senior retainers lived, were the homes of the other retainers, their distance from the castle walls being in roughly direct proportion to their rank. The higher retainers, the kar˘, were placed just outside the keep within the castle walls proper, the samurai were in between, and the ashigaru were outside the actual walls, and sometimes protected by a moat or an earthen wall. Between the two groups of samurai and ashigaru retainers lay the quarters of the favoured merchants and artisans, most of whom would be engaged in trading and producing the goods that were in demand from the samurai class. Outside the ring of ashigaru barracks lay a quarter of temples and shrines, whose buildings acted as an outer defence cordon, and from where the roads could be sealed off and guarded. From the edge of the castle town began the fields of the farmers, who grew the rice to support those within the town's boundaries. The appearance of the ashigaru barracks was of an almost unbroken frontage, save where a few large gateways, composed of heavy timbers strengthened with iron clamps, were interposed to relieve the monotony of the general style of architecture. The buildings mostly stood upon low stone foundations, surrounded by small ditches. The windows were barred, and the general aspect was gloomy in the extreme. The inhabitants of the barracks, however, did not spend all that much time there, because the ashigaru, along with all the other samurai, had no wars to fight after 1639, so much of their time was to be spent either marching to Edo, the Shogun's capital, or marching away from it. This was because their daimy˘ was only able to live in his yashiki (mansion) one year out of two, the alternate year being spent back in his castle town.

This so-called 'Alternate Attendance System' was the most unusual, and the most successful, of all the means the Tokugawa Shoguns were to devise for reducing the risk of rebellion from the daimy˘. In essence it was no more than hostage taking on a colossal scale, because the daimy˘'s wife and children lived always in the yashiki of Edo, while the daimy˘ himself alternated his residence between his fief and the capital.

The other aspect was that the muster lists which, in times of war, had regulated a daimy˘'s feudal obligations in terms of the supply of men and equipment for war, were continued into peacetime by prescribing the size and equipment of the retinue of samurai and ashigaru which the daimy˘ would be expected to have accompany him on his alternating trips. As stipends were fixed, and there were no fresh lands to conquer, the cost of the Alternate Attendance System kept the daimy˘ in a state of genteel poverty, and probably constant worry, but certain daimy˘ with particular defence responsibilities were allowed a reduced commitment. The So daimy˘ on the island of Tsushima, which lies between Japan and Korea, only had to reside in Edo for four months in every two years. A similar concession applied to the little known but strategically vital daimy˘ of the Matsumae family on the northernmost island of Hokkaido. The other daimy˘ had to march at the head of a huge army, gorgeously dressed and ready for battle, either to Edo or back again, once every twelve months.

But if the system was a burden to the daimy˘, it proved otherwise to his samurai and ashigaru. There was the prospect of a long, but not unpleasant journey, much of which would be along well-trodden highways. The two main roads linking Edo with Kyoto were the Tokaido, which followed the Pacific seacoast, and the Nakasendo, which wended its way through the mountainous interior. As early as 1604 a system of post stations was introduced along the Tokaido, and by 1633 an efficient post-horse and courier system was completed, and reduced the travelling time for the 300-mile journey from Nihombashi on Edo to Sanjobashi in Kyoto to a mere ten days. Needless to say a daimy˘'s procession was conducted at a much more leisurely pace, making good use of the 'Fifty-three stations of the Tokaido' made familiar from the prints of Hiroshige.

R˘nin and rebels

To those samurai and ashigaru lucky enough to have survived the wars and to have fallen within the new definition of Japanese elite, life was good. Yet there were thousands who did not fit into the system, and these are the men who can be called, with some justification, 'the forgotten samurai'. There were various means by which men ended up in this category, of which the most tragic examples were those who were called the ronin. For over a century the great civil wars that had raged in Japan had created an ever-increasing pool of unemployed samurai. Contrary to popular belief japanese battles rarely ended with either mass slaughter or mass acts of suicide. Quite often a defeated daimy˘ was re-invested into his territories in return for a pledge of loyalty to the victor, such as happened with the absorption of the Sanada by the Takeda, but sometimes this proved impossible. With a lord both defeated and dead, and his followers labelled as rebels, the samurai who found themselves on the losing side had lost almost everything that they had lived for or been trained for. These were the men who became known as r˘nin, 'men of the waves', immortalised forever in Kurosawa's famous film Seven Samurai, whose band of heroes are themselves r˘nin. In the movie they are employed as hired swords by a village. In real life they would have been more likely to join another daimy˘'s army, because an ambitious warlord needed every samurai he could get his hands on.

The doors of opportunity began to close for r˘nin from the time of Sekigahara onwards. All the daimy˘ were now theoretically in the service of the Shogun. Their land holdings were known, and their army numbers were carefully monitored, so there was little opportunity for casual recruitment, particularly for a samurai whose lord had been on the losing side against the Tokugawa. There was nothing romantic about the men who ended up like this, and their future was bleak indeed. The result was that early Tokugawa Japan had many r˘nin wandering its byways, providing a useful military resource for any rebel, and the great chance for the r˘nin came in 1614. Toyotomi Hidevori, son of Japans unifier, Hideyoshi, had been effectively usurped by Tokugawa Ieyasu's triumph at Sekigahara. On hearing rumours that the Tokugawa meant to eliminate him, Hideyori packed his late father's castle of Osaka with tens of thousands of rebel r˘nin in a dramatic challenge to the Tokugawa hegemony. Most of his followers were men who had been dispossessed or had otherwise suffered from the Tokugawa takeover. The long and bloody siege of Osaka was the result. It lasted a year, and when it was over the heads of thousands of r˘nin were to be seen displayed on poles for miles around between Osaka and Kyoto.

It was over twenty years before another rebellion involving r˘nin disturbed the calm of the 'Tokugawa Peace'. The Shimabara Rebellion of 1637ľ38 had its origins in the monstrous behaviour of the daimy˘ Matsukura Shigemasa, whose techniques for squeezing taxes out of his peasant farmers included tying them inside straw raincoats and setting the straw alight. The Shimabara peninsula was also a centre of Christianity, a religion that had been banned by the Shogun because of fears rising from its links to Europe. From being originally a peasants' revolt the uprising rapidly grew into a religious war, with a degree of fanaticism that even Osaka had never matched. Once again hundreds of 'forgotten samurai' joined a rebel army in taking on the Tokugawa, and once again they lost, but only after holding off the professional army of the Shogun for many bitter and expensive months.

The wanderers

R˘nin, of course, found themselves in that isolated position through no fault of their own. A few samurai, hoxvever, chose not to stay within the system of feudal obligation to the Shogun, and made their own decision to be independent. These were the men who were to achieve legendary status as the 'wandering swordsmen' of Japan. By and large, their swords were not up for hire. Instead they travelled the country on musha shugyo (warrior pilgrimages), challenging samurai to fight them almost to the death and seeking Zen enlightenment as they did so. None is better known than the famous Miyamoto Musashi, whose many duels with rivals have provided the material for endless plays, books and movies. Musashi was expert at controlling the force of the blows from his sword, and in fact his skill was said to include severing a rice grain placed on an opponent's forehead without cutting the man's skin. Otherwise he fought with wooden swords, where bruises were all that the defeated man had to complain about.

Some of the legendary wanderers did settle down eventually. The Yagyu, for example, became the teachers of swordsmanship to the Shogun's family. Others entered monasteries, and composed books that sought a spiritual dimension to the 'Way of the Sword', many of which are classics of samurai literature. Others sought more mundane employment as yojimbo (bodyguards), sometimes being employed by the criminal gangs who controlled the gambling dens of the time.

The mercenaries

The most interesting, and least well known of the 'forgotten samurai' were those who went off to seek their fortunes overseas. Some went openly as mercenaries, while others were involved in trade, either legitimately as merchants or illegally as pirates, but in nearly all cases their swords were kept ready for use. In one dramatic incident a group of Japanese samurai on Taiwan were involved in an uprising that led to the overthrow of the Dutch governor, while the mercenaries employed by the King of Siam played an important role in Siamese politics.

Mercenary warfare in its European meaning was virtually unknown in Japan itself. There were no Japanese condottieri (the notorious Italian mercenary captains), and no equivalent of the specialist weapons units for hire like the Genoese crossbowmen. The nearest parallel was the hiring of the famous ninja, in which Iga province had a valued speciality. Yet from the late 16th century onwards we can identify references to Japanese samurai fighting in foreign armies. The most important country was Siam , where Japanese warriors provided a bodyguard for the King and were highly valued. A Dutchman called Van Vliet wrote:

But the Japanese (numbering 70 to 80) are the best soldiers and have always been highly esteemed by the various kings for their bravery. The greater number of the soldiers are cowardly Siamese.

The earliest reference to Japanese fighting for Siam occurs in 1579 in a Siamese source, but this is unfortunately not confirmed by any Japanese record. It refers to a company of 500 Japanese mercenaries helping the Siamese during the invasion by Burma and Laos. Portuguese ships may have taken the men to Siam, but it is strange that no names or locations are known. King Naresuen of Siam was very active in Asian politics during his reign, which coincided with Hideyoshi's invasion of Korea in 1592, and actually offered to China the use of the Siamese navy to fight the Japanese fleet, a gesture that was politely declined.

It is not until 1606 that we have written records of intercourse between Japan and Siam, and in the numerous letters that passed to and fro, military matters appear frequently. His military advisors had assured Tokugawa Ieyasu that Siamese gunpowder was of very good quality so this became an important trading commodity. The legendary Japanese swords were equally valued in Siam, as were Japanese horses, which is somewhat surprising in view of how poorly they were regarded elsewhere.

Not all trading activity was this open or even legitimate. During the 14th and 15th centuries piracy had been one of the main means by which Japan had conducted its relations with foreign countries, and as Japanese maritime activities increased during the first few years of the 17th century, piracy again reared its ugly head. The inhabitants of the coasts of Siam, Cambodia and Vietnam soon became as wary of Japanese pirates as the Koreans had been of them over a century earlier, and when the King of Cambodia wrote to complain to Tokugawa Ieyasu, the Shogun replied that he had his full support to punish them according to the laws of Cambodia.

Other countries also became involved. In December 1605 a certain John Davis became the first Englishman ever to be killed by a Japanese when his ship was involved in a fight with Japanese pirates off the Siamese coast. In 1614 men of the East India Company killed eight Japanese in a skirmish at Ayuthia, the Siamese capital, and in 1616 Richard Cocks' diary records an alarming incident reported to him from Ayuthia by a Mr Mathias, a Dutchman. An English trader called Mr Pitts had an argument with a certain James Peterson, and:

went with three Japanese to bind him and take him prisoner. But Peterson laid so about him that he killed two of the Japanese, and made Pitts and the other run away. This Peterson is in great favour with the King of Siam, and therefore I marvel Mr Pitts would take this course, but Mr Mathias says it was done in drink.

Cambodia was another happy hunting ground for Japanese mercenaries and merchants alike, with a frequent blurring of the distinction between them. As Cambodia was notionally ruled by Siam their presence caused some friction, particularly in 1623, when the Cambodians were contemplating a rebellion against Siam. The King of Siam wrote to the Shogun Tokugawa Hidetada explaining the situation, and added:

My government intends therefore to take a convenient opportunity of raising forces by sea and land in order to overrun and subdue his territories. If the merchants of your honoured country who trade thither should be so misguided as to render him assistance when the war breaks out, they will run the risk of being hurt in the melee, which I fear will not be in accordance with the friendly feelings I entertain towards you.

Tokugawa Hidetada's reply was exactly what the King wished to read. These so-called 'merchants' were expendable. He wrote:

If merchants of my country resident there should aid them to repel the attack of your honoured country, [and] you wish to exterminate them, although it is not in accordance with the friendly relations existing between Japan and Siam, this will, however be perfectly just, and you need not hesitate for a moment.

Hidetada then gave a further rationale for such action:

Merchants are fond of gain and given up to greed, and abominable fellows of this kind ought not to escape punishment.

The forgotten samurai and the martial arts

The closing off of Japan in 1639 to all trade except that with China and Korea meant the end of Japanese ventures overseas, and the passing of the age of the samurai mercenaries. It also ushered in two centuries of peace, and this provided a further challenge to the samurai class, whose total military experience was now that of marching along the Tokaido on the Alternate Attendance System.

Paradoxically it is these forgotten samurai that we have been discussing who were to make the greatest contribution to the best known development associated with the samurai during the Tokugawa Period. This was the emergence of the martial arts out of the martial disciplines of the Age of War. There is ample evidence that the mainstream martial skills with bow, spear and sword suffered something of a decline among the Shogun's own warriors and had been replaced by a mixture of arrogance and indifference. The author Ogyu Sorai (1666ľ1728) denounced what he saw as the bad behaviour of the samurai class:

They conduct themselves in the town with their fearful appearance and their thrust-out elbows. With their power to punish they suppress people and create disorder in society ... They merely study the stories of warfare and the combative method. Or, perhaps they believe that the mere acquisition of their professional skills is the way of the warrior.

Other writers complained that the samurai seemed to have washed their hands of the martial arts altogether, and handed over this precious inheritance to the lower classes in society, including opportunistic criminals. In 1650 a law was introduced that banned duelling among bored samurai, and in 1690 a law was even passed to compel samurai to practise the martial arts! But one must have some sympathy with the samurai of Edo. They were forced to live on a fixed stipend in a world where prices were rising and the townspeople appeared to be much better off than they were. Many turned to trades or to arts and crafts to supplement their incomes. In 1720 it was noted that in the city of Kanazawa the samurai were spending more time making pots and pans than being warriors. Some, apparently, even pawned their sword blades, replacing them with strips of bamboo when inspections or guard duty required. Another critic of the samurai character, Murata Seifu (1746ľ1811), wrote that 'only the swords in their belts remind them that they are samurai'. It is just as well that Murata did not have much opportunity to examine these swords.

Yet there was little that any writer could do to reverse the overall trend towards decline in a peacetime army, and it is noticeable that when the Shogunate was overthrown, the revolutionaries were revealed to have studied and practised the martial arts in secret. These were the men who were to forge a new and modern Japan, and create a world where all samurai looked like being forgotten except in legend and art, but where their memories now grew stronger as the years went by.

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