Life was hard, and short, as a samurai. In battle, at home, at their work desk, death was always right around the corner, even after Japan had entered a long period of peace. But their stoicism is to be loved. Show host Kyota Ko describes the tight-rope walks samurais lived during the Edo Period.


The samurai kinda life

Hello world, you are listening to the Metro-classic Japanese. My name is Kyota Ko. Today, I’d like to share with you some aspects of samurai life that I feel will be interesting for you to hear. I’ve gone through close to a dozen historical sources and my conclusion is that I’m a happy man to be born after the age of the samurais. Life was hard for them. And by the time you have finished listening to this podcast, you will agree with me on this point, and in addition I think we’ll also share a feeling of respect towards them.  I won’t even need to convince you. I just need to state plain facts.

Let’s start with a little background. Japan was ruled by the samurai class for 700 years until the late 19th century, and samurais had their own set of rules and virtues that are not totally relatable for us living in our modern-day world, like how we can’t relate so much to the values of Spartans of ancient Greece. It’s said that Spartan mothers would expect their sons to come home from battle alive given that they were victorious. Mothers would rather have their sons’ dead body come back than have them come back alive from a defeat. That’s some incredulous value from our eyes, but that was the Spartan culture. And some parts of samurai culture will make you frown too. 

If video games are a thing for you or they were ever a thing for you – it was for me for a long time – there is a game series called Dark Souls. It was one of my favorite games, and since the series has sold 25 million units worldwide, chances are you have played it too. A metaphor that came to mind while I was studying the rules of samurai society, was the game Dark Souls. 

The most characteristic feature of this game is that it’s an extremely, extremely difficult game. You’re thrown into a dark fantasy world where there are walking and running corpses that are all after you and ridiculously supersized creatures that move faster than you do, and there are bottomless cliffs and holes everywhere that will take your life instantly. Basically, one false move and you die. The game is designed to devastate you. That’s a feeling you don’t experience everyday, but in Dark Souls, you can. Every 20 seconds. Literally, you die every 20 seconds if it’s your first time playing the game. 

Now there’s one hint of hope in this game, and that’s the blood stain on the ground. You know how when you watch horror films, you can kinda tell when you want to watch out. Like a corner of a corridor or if the corridor leads you to a single door and you gotta open it. You know something’s coming. So there’s often a blood stain or multiple blood stains right before those kind of places.

Each stain represents another player somewhere in the world who died there. If you are connected online, when you touch the blood stain, you can see a blurry footage of the ghost of that person showing you how he or she died. So having seen that, you prepare yourself mentally for what’s awaiting you. But nevertheless, more often than not, you die anyway. But the blood statins still help because you are informed that someone else in the world had courage to take a chance before you. And their dead souls tell you what got them, so that you’ll have a slightly better chance of survival. 

The samurai world was in a way, kinda like this. Death was always right around the corner and you bet your life on every move and the only way to raise your chances of survival and success was by studying how other samurais had failed and died in the past. This made perfect sense for quite a while, during a time of civil war when battles took place on a daily basis. For samurais, one mistake in battle of course almost always meant death.

There’s a Japanese word that does not have a direct translation in English. It’s called 油断 Yudan in Japanese. The best way to translate this is… um… lowered mental guard. So in samurai films and many manga and anime that involve fighting, this particular line “油断するなよ” is used very often. This means “Don’t lower your guard” or “Be on your toes.” 

Anyway it’s when you think it’s time you can settle down and there’s nothing more to worry about, you get shot by an enemy arrow or your fleet gets ambushed by enemy fleets who were hiding in the bushes. Samurais always had to be alert, and they literally slept with their katana swords in their hands. There was hardly any time for them to truly relax. 

Samurais in the age of peace

The age of civil war in which feudal samurai lords all over the country waged war onto each other was settled around the early 17th century, and it was followed by a 250 year period of peace, still governed by the samurai class, though. This period is called the Edo Period. So samurais no longer died in battle. They didn’t have to constantly be on their toes to avoid getting killed anymore, but they kept the samurai stoicism as their code of conduct. And here’s the part we should be happy we were not samurais. 

So Japan entered a peaceful time and the samurai class around the country turned into government officers. So picture samurais wearing kimono and katana swords on their waists, heading your local government or public offices. They oversaw a lot of the kind of work public officers would do nowadays, like running court or determining policies to maintain and improve public safety. A lot of desk work. But for samurais, it didn’t matter what kind of work they were handling. One mistake, and they were prepared to hand over their lives. 

The samurai custom of seppuku suicide

There was a custom – and I’m sure some of you have head of it – a custom called “Seppuku” in the samurai world, which was basically the taking of your own life by means of cutting your gut open with a knife. I don’t want you to imagine too thoroughly how Seppuku was done because it’s extremely gory just to think about it but basically that’s like one of the most painful ways to die. In order to show how sorry they were about their failure to fulfill their responsibilities, samurais sometimes chose to Seppuku themselves. 

So during the age of civil war, if a samurai was assigned a role to for example lead an ambush on the enemy from the side but for some reason failed to do so and that caused the deaths of hundreds or thousands of soldiers on his side, even if he himself managed to retreat from the battle alive, he would later Seppuku himself. So imagine a manager or director in the organization you work in taking his or her own life after failing to reach a sales target. He’s showing that he’s THAT sorry for his failure. 

The Phaeton Incident

Now there’s a historical record of a Seppuku episode – I’ll give you one detailed example. This happened during the peaceful Edo Period. In the 19th century, the British and the French were at war with each other and they were competing with each other for colonial territory all the way out in the Pacific Ocean. The Dutch were also at war against the British because they had been conquered by the French by then. Japan was not colonized but it had closed its ports to all foreign countries and it only traded with the Dutch. This was because the Dutch were trading for the sake of trading unlike other countries that were more interested in spreading Christianity in Japan. Japan had decided that it would stay Buddhist/Shinto. 

So in 1808, a British ship called the Phaeton sailed up close to the port of Nagasaki and it was able to do so because it was under disguise as a Dutch ship. It had a Dutch flag put up on its mast. So the Dutch merchants who lived and worked in Nagasaki sent two of their members to greet the ship on a small boat. They were captured by the Phaeton and the ship demanded that they get water and food in return for the return of the hostages. The remaining Dutch merchants ran to the governor of Nagasaki who was a samurai by the name of MATSUDAIRA Yasuhide. Yasuhide promised that he would bring the hostages back alive and also tried to see if he could sink the British ship. 

So Yasuhide thinks of capturing the British ship but little did he know that he had only a tenth of the guards he was supposed to have protecting the port. He soon found out that the samurai clan that was responsible for guarding the port of Nagasaki had been secretly reducing their fleet to cut costs. Because Japan was at peace for almost 200 years. 

So as a governor, Yasuhide called for help from other samurai clans to send troops into Nagasaki, and he decided to buy time until the reinforcements arrived. 

The next day, the captain of the Phaeton released one of the two hostages and then threatened Yasuhide   that if they didn’t get food and drinks, they would burn down all the Japanese ships docked at the port. So Yasuhide gave into their demand because he only had like 100 men with him, but he told the Phaeton that he could only provide a part of the volume of water the British ship was asking for, telling them that that was all they had for now and they’d have the rest ready the next day. Yasuhide was trying to buy time. 

Later that day, some water and food was sent to the Phaeton, and the captain released the other Dutch hostage when he received the food and drink. The Phaeton started preparing for sail. 

So early in the morning next day, several hundred men who were sent from a nearby samurai clan arrived, but while they were planning an ambush together with Yasuhide, the Phaeton sailed away. 

So at the end of the day, there were no casualties on either side, the hostages were returned, no one got hurt. But as the governor of Nagasaki, Yasuhide felt he had embarrassed Japan for letting the British ship get what they wanted and get away with taking hostage and threatening to cause damage. So Yasuhide wrote up a report, sent it off to the central government, and without waiting for a reply, he killed himself. Seppuku. And also some of the samurais of the clan that had been found to have been neglecting their responsibility of protecting the port of Nagasaki killed themselves too. Seppuku. 

Yasuhide felt that taking his own life was the only way to show a big enough apology for not being able to do anything to protect the face of the country. Nowadays in Japan, it’s really rare that a full-time employee gets fired for a one-time error, but during the early modern ages, positions opened up abruptly like this. Because of Seppuku.

My guess is that the the captain of the Phaeton was just trying to get food and drinks for his crew and he didn’t want anyone to die, and they sailed away without causing any physical damage onto Japan or the resident Dutch merchants. But as a result, sorry, there were several samurais that killed themselves for what had happened. 

Choice of getting killed or killing yourself

There was this other incident during the peaceful Edo Period where a samurai had to Seppuku himself for an error at work. In the late 17th century, there was a samurai by the name of NAGAI Kyuhachiro who was overseeing finance in the samurai clan governing Aizu, which is an area 300 km North of Tokyo.

The clan he worked for was in bad shape financially, so he made proposals of several different ways to address the issue, and one of them was to print money. The proposal went up to the feudal lord and was approved because it sounded like a good idea. 

In the short-run, the feudal domain’s economy was stimulated with more money now in circulation, but if you’re familiar with economics, you may know that printing too much money would cause inflation and extreme inflation would cause hyperinflation. And that was what eventually happened. People couldn’t buy daily necessities and of course the clan suffered financially even more. 

So who gets to Seppuku in this case? Is it Kyuhachiro the samurai finance director who came up with the idea, or the feudal samurai lord who approved the idea? It was Kyuhachiro. Although it was partly his fault for not anticipating the consequences on the economy, the head of the clan approved it! You’d think it’s unfair, right?

Of course the feudal lord felt it was partly his fault. So what he told Kyuhachiro was this: “I would sentence you to decapitation” – decapitation means to chop off the head – So the samurai lord said “I would sentence you to decapitation, but OK, it’s not entirely your fault that we’re in this mess. So I’ll sentence you to Seppuku, OK?” So Kyuhachiro was told that he had a choice of taking responsibility either by getting killed or killing himself. 

“What kind of choice is that?” Is what we would think, but that was the samurai reality of the time. If they had a written job description, it would have said “To die for your master in the case your death will settle problems.” 

So death was always right around the corner for many samurais even during the age of peace. Learning from your own mistakes was not a practical survival technique for them, unfortunately. 

Samurais learned from past errors

But Japanese people back then actually learned from others’ mistakes. Remember the samurai clan at Nagasaki that ended up with a Seppuku for cutting corners without permission? The samurai lord of that clan himself didn’t kill himself, but when he retired and had his son take over the clan, his son really took the failure seriously. His name was NABESHIMA Naomasa, and he prioritized the adoption and research and development of Western military and naval technology, especially of gunfire and the steam engine. 

So Naomasa was really meaning to give the next British ship a lesson. By the mid 19th century, Naomasa and his clan was able to reproduce the latest version of the Armstrong gun which is a canon basically, and even a steam engine. Naomasa’s samurai clan was the only place in Japan that had the most up-to-date first-world technology at that time. 

Through importing Western technology, Naomasa learned how important it was to keep up with the world, so he actually insisted that Japan open up for trade with England. Some samurais were really respected by ordinary Japanese people and I hope you can see why. Some of them really teach us the importance to learn. Even to learn from your enemies. Naomasa went on to help Japan modernize rapidly in the latter half of the 19 century.

So samurais had rules us people of the 21st century cannot possibly conform to, but I feel there’s still a lot we can learn from their work ethics. There’s a monochrome photo of Mr. NABESHIMA Naomasa on wikipedia. He’s dressed in a samurai outfit and he really has an average Japanese face. With the level of respect I now feel towards him, I don’t think I’ll ever forget his face. 

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