ISHIKAWA Jōzan was a samurai warrior at the end of the age of samurais, the late 16th century. As we face a new era of humanity, Jōzan’s career and life decisions shed light to how we may still be able to pursue happiness in times of drastic changes. 

Time line of ISHIKAWA Jōzan
Time line of ISHIKAWA Jōzan

A success story of a samurai during times of drastic change

Hello world, you are listening to the Metro-classic Japanese, bringing you a podcast today to share with you a story of a samurai warrior of the late 16th century who found purpose in life during a big turning point in Japanese history – his name was  ISHIKAWA Jōzan – he was a talented samurai warrior who was born during a time when the age of samurai warfare was coming to an end. 

As an analogy, let’s say you were born with a talent in making tons of money and you know this because you have been working at a huge securities company and you’ve been performing super well making tons of money for your clients, so you know that if you went off on your own, you’d make it big.

But just when you started up your own company and you succeeded in landing a big contract and you reconfirmed that you were in fact good at what you’re doing, because of the coronavirus and lockdowns, people’s values have shifted drastically from pursuing money to pursuing happiness. And you yourself start to doubt if what you’re good at is really what you want to do with life.

So your talent is less relevant to the world you live in now. Are you going to push forward with the craft you’ve worked so hard on mastering, or try to reinvent yourself on a new career? This was the question ISHIKAWA Jōzan had to answer. I’m really excited to talk about him for you because this story can give us hope in living in an age of drastic change.

First of all, Jōzan was born into a samurai family in 1583 in what is now a part of Aichi Prefecture, which is geographically right between Tokyo and Osaka. Toyota Motors has its headquarters in Aichi Prefecture. 

Japan’s war-infested time period

To set the scene, let me give you an idea of what Japan was like back then. Up until the late 16th century, Japan was divided into 70 or so countries and almost all of them were at war with each other for around a hundred years. Imagine each state of the United States waging war on each other.

That was what it was like in Japan in the 16th century. Each country was led by a samurai feudal lord who had several other samurai families working under him, so whenever they invaded another country or got invaded by another country, they would pick up their swords and spears and armors and go into battle along with thousands of their soldiers. 

Generally, samurais back then would live a relatively humble life because their roots were in peasant life, just like the people they governed. They ate simple stuff like rice and vegetables and didn’t spend much money on luxuries. The samurai way of life still affects the minds of Japanese people today. We tend not to praise or admire people who pamper themselves way beyond the standard.

This is definitely one reason the average pay of company CEOs in Japan is far lower than those of other developed countries. It’s like a fifth of the UK and a tenth of the US. It’s partly because if Japanese CEOs got paid that much, they wouldn’t be able to get any respect from his or her staff.

Anyway, so samurais didn’t spend much on luxuries. So what did they spend on? They spent money on their armors and helmets. If you go to the Tokyo National Museum, you’ll see many good examples of Japanese samurai armors, but it’s obvious that standing out in battle was a primary interest for them.

Especially their helmets came in extravagant designs. These helmets looked like the head of a beetle and many of them had two golden horns split at the forehead, just like a Gundam robot’s head, only the samurai helmets were often fancier. Each samurai warrior wore an armor suit with an iconic one-and-only design and other soldiers could identify each of them from a distance, even when their faces were covered in a helmet and a mask.

Each samurai warrior’s identity was expressed in their armor suit, just like we do nowadays through our business suits. 

It was very important to invest in your armor suit not only because well-crafted armors and helmets would reduce the likelihood of death in battle, but also because samurai warriors literally wanted to show off. For some of us, we find purpose in life when we are with our families, some of us find passion in work or a hobby, but for samurai warriors, their passion lied in battle.

They had been working on developing their minds and skills just for one thing. To thrive in battle. Defeating dozens of enemy soldiers or defeating an enemy samurai leader meant they would get a raise and also raise awareness of their good names. That’s what they had been living for.

To promote their names as courageous warriors who for example slew 3 enemy soldiers with a single swing of the spear, or defeated the fiercest samurai of Central Japan on a one-on-one, or charged into an enemy of 20,000 with just 3,000 soldiers, they basically dreamt of becoming a legend. 

And dying in battle was the next best thing. If you died in battle, your descendants would talk about you as an ancestor who for example died heroically in the battle of Kanegasaki as he drew enemy attention to let his master flee from the battlefield, or an ancestor who died courageously in the front lines of the famous battle of Kawanakajima.

You see, they didn’t want to be remembered as an ancestor who quietly died in bed. And they dressed in shiny armor suits because they wanted to be clothed in the coolest outfit at the height of their lives. Dying in pajamas was the last thing they wanted, so they had very different values from us humans nowadays, but it is understandable considering their profession. 

Raised as an elite samurai

It was times like these that ISHIKAWA Jōzan was born, and of course he had been told how successful his ancestors were in battle by his parents. So he was a good samurai boy and he dreamt of going on his first battle at as early as 13. But again, the age of warfare was coming to an end in the late 16th century, and the 70 or so countries were largely being conquered one by one, by a single powerful ruler. So Jōzan’s father didn’t want to risk losing his son in battle because Jōzan was his first son which meant he would be the heir of the family. 

Jōzan’s father died when Jōzan was 16 and he became the breadwinner of his family, and because he was a talented samurai, he was hired as a bodyguard of TOKUGAWA Ieyasu, who was a samurai lord who had become the ruler of much of Japan. It was like Jōzan became the secretary of Jeff Bezos of Amazon.

He was one of the closest people to the most powerful man of the time. He was responsible for protecting his master from assassination attempts at night while he slept. Everyone knew how courageous and loyal he was to Ieyasu because there’s an episode in which Jōzan went into a building on fire to rescue his master’s baby son along with the mother. 

And Jōzan would always be at Ieyasu’s side during battle, but he never had a chance to actually fight and prove his skills because enemy forces never reached Ieyasu. By the end of the 16th century, it was like towards the end of a one-sided chess game. There were so many pieces protecting the king on Jōzan’s side, and there were only a few pieces left on the opponent’s side, and they would never be able to threaten Ieyasu’s life. 

Jōzan was always ready. He practiced with his spear everyday and even studied war tactics and strategies from really academically challenging Chinese literature. He was getting job offers from feudal lords everywhere, everyone knew about Jōzan’s excellence, but he had never fought in battle. He had become 33 and still did not have real-world experience. If you were a son of a samurai family back then, you would have already fought in a battle or two by the age of 16.

Pressure from mom

In 1615, really the last big battle of the age of the samurais was going to be held – it was literally the last move to pick off the king on the opponent side. So this was the last chance for Jōzan to make a name for himself as a warrior.

His mother had written a letter to him saying something like “Despite being born into a lineage of legendary warriors, you have not made me proud even once. If you fail to make a name for yourself this time, you shall not see me ever again.” Japanese moms are not the best kind of moms sometimes, to be honest. 

And Jōzan’s mom was in fact very ill, and Jōzan thought it was his last chance to make his mother proud. So his master Ieyasu initiated a long march from what is now Tokyo all the way to Osaka. But along the way, Jōzan gets sick from a disease called typhoid fever so he falls back in the long line of soldiers. But that was not acceptable for him because his goal was to get the title of what samurais called Ichiban-yari and Ichiban-kubi. 

“Ichiban” means “first” or “first place” in Japanese, and “yari” means “spear.” So the title “first spear” or Ichiban-yari in battle referred to the soldier who managed to be in front of all soldiers and was the very first man to stab enemy infantry with his spear. And then there’s Ichiban-kubi. “Kubi” means “head” in this case, so “Ichiban-kubi” referred to the soldier who managed to behead the very first enemy soldier. First kill, basically. 

“Ichiban-yari” and “Ichiban-kubi” were the greatest honor a samurai could receive in battle, because as you can imagine, they are the most dangerous of all moves. Arrows and bullets are flying in your direction and enemy spearmen are positioned in a horizontal line, waiting to stab you. Your chances of being the first to be killed was as high as not winning anything in a lottery.

So being the front man of the front line in battle, even if it’s likely that it will result in your death, was the most courageous thing you could do in battle and it was that courageous act of a handful of samurais that encouraged other soldiers to follow and charge into the enemies.

Jōzan was going for that. His typhoid fever was not gonna stop him.  But during the march, Ieyasu issued a military order in which all soldiers were to wait for the main unit to arrive, which means you were not supposed to start the battle even if your unit arrived at the battlefield early. Ieyasu made this call because he didn’t want to lose his men for nothing.

Times have shifted by then from relying on the valor and skills of individuals to the effectiveness of team tactics. Firing hundreds of guns on command did much more damage than having one samurai warrior charging into a sea of enemies. But samurais would do the charging because that’s just second nature for them. That was a samurai virtue that had to stop. 

Becomes a living legend

But for Jōzan, this was his first and last chance to live the life of a warrior. So he sneaked out of Ieyasu’s main unit disguised as a regular soldier and walked fast to get to the very front of the march. And to give it away, the story I’m telling you right now is not a tragedy. Jōzan lives to the age of 90. So yes, he gets to Osaka Castle which is the headquarters of the opponent, faster than anyone else, and he was the Ichiban-kubi.

He actually got into a one-on-one with an enemy samurai of a pretty famous samurai family and just destroyed this poor dude. Jōzan’s 33 years of frustration exploded in the battlefield. He proved that practice makes perfect. 

He survives the battle, and from samurais around him, he gets praised and awed – he became a living legend. But of course he went against military orders and therefore he was suspended. His samurai peers tried to persuade Ieyasu to take the suspension back, but without waiting for an answer, Jōzan shaved his head and became a Buddhist monk.

He realized that the way of the samurai was no longer in demand in Japan, and after that battle, he decided to go into academia. He studied Zen and Chinese literature really hard while taking care of his sick mother. 

He worked as a scholar under some feudal lords in order to make enough money to feed his mother. When his mother died, Jōzan was 54. He retired immediately and a few years later built a temple called Shisendou in a quiet exclusive area at the foot of a mountain in Kyoto, which still exists now.

He designed a beautiful garden there and I’ve actually been there before. When you look out at the garden from the Japanese-style terrace, it’s as if time has stopped. You’ll lose track of time completely in the serenity. 

Prince Charles and his wife then – Princess Diana visited Shisendou in 1986. So… somebody recommended the temple to the couple. And I do too, to you. If you ever go there and sit down on the tatami mats with your legs spread out, facing the garden, feeling the breeze cleansing your soul, please remember Mr. ISHIKAWA Jōzan, after spending half his life meeting and exceeding expectations of the samurai society he was born into and the strict mom he had, he spent his remaining 30 years reading books, writing poems, making tea, and gardening, there at that temple.

He found his own kind of happiness, and didn’t let anyone decide the course of his life anymore. That’s the type of life I’d like to go for. How about you?

Anyway, I hope you enjoyed this episode. それでは、またお会いしましょう。