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The Warrior Mentality: The Transformation of the Samurai in the Edo Period

The cultural repackaging of the samurai from individualistic warriors into gentlemen scholars began with their economic and political restructuring at the hands of the Tokugawa shogunate. During the Edo period (1603-1868), core samurai ideals of honor and aggression became redefined in terms of shogunal loyalty, etiquette and intellectual refinement. While the cultivation of martial skill and intellectual pursuits increasingly promoted spiritual development, the romantic image of the samurai and his martial prowess became contingent upon his increasing lack of autonomy. During the generations of Tokugawa peace, samurai were both the subjects and catalysts of transformation, embodying the noble and elusive “way of the warrior” but pragmatically limited by their social and economic immobility.

The Warring States or Sengoku Period (1467-1603), was characterized by violence and conflict, as individual daimyō, the vassal lords of the central shogunate, amassed followers and holdings, won battles and built splendid fortresses. The samurai themselves occupied a more nebulous sphere, as armed peasants incorporated into a daimyō’s army could, to an extent, flow in and out of samurai ranks. The maxim of gekogujō or “those below overthrow those from above,” remained an ever-present reality [1]. Treachery was rampant, and samurai frequently changed allegiances while fiercely striving to demonstrate personal honor and courage [2]. The period of unification which followed ultimately centralized power under the aegis of the Tokugawa shogunate, depriving daimyō and samurai of their fluidity and autonomy.

Yoshitoshi, Tsukioka. Sengoku Period. Woodblock Print, 1865.

The Tokugawa shogunate sought to impose an idealistic moral and social structure, infused with Confucian values of order and stability [3]. The implementation of a Tokugawa hegemony and restrictive social system served as a means of dispossessing daimyō and samurai of their former autonomy. For the first time, the samurai became a hereditary class with privileges and roles divided between “higher” and “lower” samurai [4]. Unlike merchant and artisan classes, which enjoyed economic mobility and the prospect of wealth, lower samurai relied entirely upon financial stipends from the shogun [5]. Although aristocratic in social standing, the financial prosperity and political power of the daimyō, and by extension that of their samurai retainers, were increasingly at the mercy of the shogunate. Correspondingly, samurai were cut off the land and corralled into castle towns, thereby similarly restricted by their own daimyō lords [6]. This prevented charismatic and ambitious daimyō from actualizing gekogujō, amassing followers, and deposing their Tokugawa overlords.

The Bakuhan system categorized daimyō according to their relation and loyalty to the shogun, the ultimate center of power. While daimyō were allotted individual domains, or han, their prosperity and proximity to the shogun defined their political lives [7]. The accompanying system of alternate attendance required a daimyō to spend half of his time at court, enabling the shogun to personally supervise the conduct and loyalty of his vassals [8]. The vast expenditures necessary for a daimyō to maintain the required trappings of his station, including a house in town and the elaborate processions between his own domains and the Tokugawa court, greatly restricted his ability to muster a threat. The splendor and martial order of these processions contradicted a bleaker economic reality, as many daimyō became incapable of maintaining the lavish lifestyle required by the Tokugawa court [9]. From the shogunal perspective, the keeping of the peace and Tokugawa supremacy required the undermining of individual daimyō power. The implementation of elaborate rituals and ruinous expenditures on the part of the daimyō further reduced their independent resources and might.

In addition to the political and economic restructuring of the daimyō and their samurai retainers, the institutionalization of core components of warrior culture further redefined them in relation to the shogunate. Before the Edo period, self-sacrificial seppuku was a highly individualistic practice, frequently committed after a lost battle to atone for failure, restore honor and acquire glory in death [10]. Seppuku often involved “extreme forms of self-inflicted violence” [11]. Certain samurai went to the drastic lengths of “pulling out [their] own viscera as a symbolic expression of the warrior’s anger” [12]. Under the Tokugawa, the practice of seppuku transformed from a personal expression of wrathful courage to an institutionalized ritual.

Yoshitoshi, Tsukioka. Akashi Gidayu and Tiger. Woodblock Print, 1890.

Most significantly, seppuku became a means of criminal punishment, explicitly reserved for the samurai class. In place of the samurai taking his own life, the final blow would be dealt by a kaishaku, or executioner. In early Tokugawa society, the samurai’s courage was “expressed through the extent of the incision he could make before the kaishaku severed his neck” [13]. However, this practice gradually faded, replaced by intricate pre-death rituals, including the observance of proper dress, modesty and purification, while wooden weapons or a fan were presented as a substitute for a real blade [14]. Copious self-inflicted violence became associated with personal grandeur and rebellion against the shogun, with potential ramifications for surviving family members. For this reason, a samurai’s conduct during his execution was observed and meticulously recorded by a panel of official examiners seated behind white paper screens [15]. A samurai’s honor during the ceremony was contingent upon his well-mannered acceptance of punishment, which also served as an acknowledgement of guilt. The institutionalization of seppuku also demonstrates the shogunate’s effectiveness in repackaging pre-existing samurai structures and cultural practices. Just as decorative and expensive daimyō processions were founded on the practice of marshaling warriors, the violent, individualistic origins of seppuku transformed into a demonstration of submission, a potent reminder of Tokugawa supremacy.

Social immobility and the absence of war also caused samurai to turn to intellectual pursuits in order to justify their aristocratic standing and make sense of their own lack of autonomy. The attainment of social refinement transformed martial arts, which “became less about warfare and more about personal cultivation and spiritual development.” Loyalty and learning became central to the samurai identity. While the samurai emphasized honor through action in their teachings, independent martial activity remained largely forbidden. Therefore, the role of art and legend became crucial in the perception of the samurai class.

Commoners hungrily consumed theater and art depicting the exploits of samurai, and sought to appear and behave like samurai themselves [17]. The financial wealth of some merchants and commoners allowed them to adopt enriched versions of samurai dress, while others bought or won the right to wear two swords, a privilege previously available only to hereditary samurai [18]. Samurai customs were adopted and repackaged in the social language of other classes. In 1688, Ihara Saikaku published The Great Mirror of Male Love, a collection of stories of love and attachment between samurai [19]. While the first half is devoted to an exploration of warrior attachments, the second half depicts the love affairs of young male kabuki actors with non-samurai patrons and townsmen, a manifestation of shudō, or “the way of loving boys” [20]. Works like Saikaku’s served to both consecrate elements of samurai culture and make them available to lower social classes. While the romanticized public image of the samurai conflicted with their actual inagency and frequent impoverishment, the desire of non-samurai classes to adopt samurai values, art and behavior served to perpetuate the warrior mythos.

The transformation of the samurai into gentlemen scholars directly opposed the martial energy, individualism and fluidity they had exhibited and prized during the previous Warring States Period. Through the redistribution of land and bakuhan system, the Tokugawa shogunate sought to relegate daimyō lords to bureaucratic and ceremonial roles.The institutionalization of martial and spiritual rituals such as seppuku and daimyō processions increasingly emphasized etiquette, obedience and gentility, further contributing to the pacification of the samurai class. Theater, art and legend disseminated samurai ideals and dress to other classes, but also provided the samurai with an enduring cultural mythos. In response to their lack of social mobility, the intellectual cultivation of a warrior mentality came to define the samurai’s self-perception as they attempted to reconcile their new social roles.


Footnotes:


[1] Rubinfien, Louisa. History 482: Japan Before 1800 Lecture. 1 November 2021. University of Maryland: College Park. Class Lecture.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Hane Mikiso and Louis Perez, “The Early Tokugawa Period,” in Premodern Japan 2nd Edition. Avalon Publishing, 2014. pp. 194-5)

[4] Hane and Perez, 196.

[5] Gainty, Denis. “The New Warriors,” Japan Emerging, 347.

[6] Rubinfien, Louisa. Class lecture, November 1.

[7] Gainty, Denis. “The New Warriors,” Japan Emerging, 347.

[8] Ibid, 345-6.

[9] Rubinfien, Louisa. History 482: Japan Before 1800 Lecture. 22 November 2021. University of Maryland: College Park. Class Lecture.

[10] Ikegami, Eiko. The Taming of the Samurai: Honorific Individualism and the Making of Modern Japan. Harvard University Press. Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1995. pp. 253.

[11] Ibid, 253.

[12] Ibid, 257.

[13] Ibid, 255.

[14] Ibid, 255.

[15] Ibid, 257.

[16] Gainty, “The New Warriors,” 357.

[17] Ibid, 354-7.

[18] Ibid, 353.

[19] Sakaku, Ihara, trans. Schalaw, Paul G. The Great Mirror of Male Love. Stanford University Press, Stanford, California. 1990.

[20] Ibid, 1.


Bibliography

Ehlers, Marin A., “The Tokugawa Status Order.” Give and Take: Poverty and the Status Order

in Early Modern Japan, pp. 3-13.


Gainty, Denis. “The New Warriors,” Japan Emerging. Taylor and Francis, 2021. 344-55.

Hane Mikiso and Louis Perez, “The Early Tokugawa Period,” in Premodern Japan 2nd Edition.

Avalon Publishing, 2014. pp. 179-204.


Ikegami, Eiko. The Taming of the Samurai: Honorific Individualism and the Making of Modern

Japan. Harvard University Press. Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1995. pp. 253-257.


Rubinfien, Louisa. History 482: Japan Before 1800 Lecture. 1 November 2021. University of Maryland: College Park. Class Lecture.


Rubinfien, Louisa. History 482: Japan Before 1800 Lecture. 22 November 2021. University of Maryland: College Park. Class Lecture.


Sakaku, Ihara, trans. Schalaw, Paul G. The Great Mirror of Male Love. Stanford University

Press, Stanford, California. 1990.


Yoshitoshi, Tsukioka. Akashi Gidayu and Tiger. Woodblock Print, 1890. Accessed 4 October

2022. https://ukiyo-e.org/image/artelino/34916g1


Yoshitoshi, Tsukioka. Sengoku Period. Original Woodblock Print, 1865. Accessed 4 October,

2022. https://www.1stdibs.com/art/prints-works-on-paper/portrait-prints-works-on-paper/

tsukioka-yoshitoshi-sengoku-period-yoshitoshi-original-japanese-woodblock-print-ukiyo-

e-samurai/id-a_4220451/


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