Ted Cleaver

Tag: Samurai

Bushido

Yesterday I made an attempt to weave together the story of a dancer turned FTE and Japan’s warrior period transformed into administrative rule. While bboys and warriors are/were motivated by the expectation of upcoming battles, tenured employment in post- and pre-industrial organizations can quickly become a drudging routine. Many great thinkers have argued that the human soul has a creative dimension that should be nourished. Likewise, it has been argued that bureaucratic work organization saps the life out of human beings. In Edo Japan, samurai scholars problematized the identity crisis of the warrior class. Some found solace in the arts or intellectual pursuits, while others rejected the reality of their circumstances and idolized the past.

Yamamoto Tsunetomo for instance was very upset about the fact that he was not allowed to use his swords like in the old days. In primary sources he is described as rash and hot-headed, although fiercely loyal to and affectionate with his master. When his lord died, he got upset to the point of being butt hurt for not being allowed to commit ritual suicide – his master had purposely enforced that law before passing away. Tsunetomo then decided to become a hermit. He was not a real hermit, because a trusted companion stayed by his side to record disappointed utterances of the malnourished and frustrated man. As bitter and pessimistic he was about his own life, as enchanted he was by the past. The Hagakure, commonly known as Bushido, is largely based a collection of idolizations and fantasies of what samurai-hood was like before Japan’s unification. Unfortunately Tsunetomo’s ideas are not supported by more objective historic accounts. Few primary sources on samurai and ronin were recorded and survived the ravages of time. Existing accounts from the Muromachi and Sengoku periods however describe samurai in general as risk-averse opportunists.

The code of ethics and superhuman capabilities – committing seppuku is a medical impossibility – grafted onto samurai and ronin alike served a political purpose. In the first instance, Nitobe Inazo elaborated on the code of conduct described in the Hagakure to convince invading powers that the Japanese had a cultural heritage on par with Western nobility. His convoluted attempt to overcome an acute inferiority complex is understandable. For centuries, Japan had sealed off its borders and revelled in the unchecked certainty that they were the chosen and superior people under the sun. Then, black ships appear at their borders with superior technology, a globally more successful political and economic model, and an air of quasi-fascist cultural superiority. Nitobe conjured up a system of ethics for samurai, one he admits did not exist formally. His widely influential work on the popular conception of Bushido is best understood by taking into account the situational factors of his time and critically examining the reliability of his sources. In the second instance, during WWII the Japanese military employed the Hagakure to invigorate the spirits of an outnumbered army. Both instances largely increased the popularity of Tsunetomo’s collection of thoughts; in his time the compilation was circulated in no more than three provinces.

The most important realization on the truth of Bushido is that our popular understanding of the samurai code is largely informed by the writings of two untrained and frankly incompetent historians. This is not to say that the warriors of post-Heian and pre-Edo Japan were not exceptionally skilled. Simply by competitive drive, the level of mastery in any discipline increases when the number of participants in the field increases. Heroes like Musashi were very real. He made an impact by taking the road less travelled. While common samurai at the time routinely resorted to cutting off the heads of corpses on battlefields – hardly a display of honour, but they were remunerated for military performance by “head count” – others pledged their lives to a higher goal.

I’m not really comfortable with the term soul, I don’t know if I have one. One thing is for sure though, between meeting objective but flawed performance appraisal systems and making your own path, I’d rather do it my way. It is a romantic idea, one that screams adventure. While we have a romantic understanding of Bushido altogether, comparable to Asians thinking all European knights were like Sir Lancelot, the real lessons lie in personal accounts of warriors who aspired greatness. They became great because they chose their own journey with confidence. 

Ronin

It was Soul Saturday. Many don’t know, but Âme, the infamous German deep house duo, is the French word for soul. It is questionable whether two electronic music producers are able to do the concept justice, however their performance enticed a lively crowd to celebrate their humanity freely. If there is an innate human quality, this is the type of party where people connect with each other on a deeper level of understanding.

Enter bboy Ronin, an old friend I hadn’t seen for many years. Between then and now both of us have reached a new stage in our lives. Back then, we battled together and did commercial gigs as part of the same syndicate. More than that, we trained and hung out as friends. The affiliation with this syndicate was by no means exclusive; my most important bonds at the time were with my crew and friends – as was the case for all part-time mercenaries. As a bboy you are an autodidact, plus gaining experience by friendly or hostile exchange is the best way to improve your skills. You use your own creativity to develop your own style, keeping in mind and building on foundation and new schools of flow. Dancing is an expression of your soul. This is best observed when you feel the raw energy of a dancer who completely loses himself in the music. Ronin’s style was powerful, complex, and intricate. He stood out because he invested a lot of time into his brand of movement, and of course his badass a.k.a.

He tells me how he’s making good money as an account manager. More importantly, we talk about relationships. I can count the people I know whose eyes light up when they talk about their partner on one hand. He is one of them. Call it a soul mate, call it the Body Magic Index: you know a couple is meant to be when the chemistry between lovers sparks passion and spreads harmony at the same time. One of these people I know found out in Brazil that “every cell of [his] body wants to be with” his girl every second of every day. Now, my man Ronin tells me his fiancée and he are going to travel South America for a whole year. It’s fitting. A ronin in the modern sense can refer to an employee who is between jobs. However, this does not preclude involuntary unemployment. The ronin in his rawest form embarks on a path by conscious decision. The meaning of this journey has changed from mastering swordsmanship to leading a fulfilled life by sharing the most special experiences with the person most special to you. In the spirit of the Holstee Manifesto, by all means, travel often, share your dreams and wear your passion. Y.G., I salute you for taking the road less travelled.

There is an interesting analogy between the stages in our lives – from climbing the ranks in the breakdance scene to working fulltime, albeit interrupted by a meaningful journey – and feudal Japan’s history. Bear with me. A ronin traditionally is a samurai without a lord. The role and function of samurai and ronin changed drastically after the final unification of Japan by Tokugawa Ieyasu. From the 12th century up until the Edo period, samurai were fighting for a living. Especially the 200-year long Warring States period was plagued by never-ending violent conflict. During the first phase (1185-1603) of feudal Japan, samurai were the military strong-arm and police force of their lords or province. Ronin, basically samurai with no formal allegiance, could either seek to become new retainers to a master in need of more swordsmen, freelance as mercenaries for hire, or become entrepreneurs outside of the law: bandits. In all cases military proficiency was a necessity, however the average skill of samurai and ronin alike is largely overestimated. Unless of course the ronin chose for his status deliberately. Miyamoto Musashi, arguably the most famous Japanese warrior to have ever lived, chose to live by the sword. He devoted his early life to honing his skills beyond mastery. Being born late in the Warring States period, there were plenty of adversaries for him to crush with his signature style Niten-ryu. Later in his life, privileged as a warrior in good grace with the Tokugawa shogunate, he would reflect on his style and his philosophy in the Book of Five Rings.

The Edo period (1603-1868) was one of peace. Samurai were no longer warriors, the designation now referred to a social class accredited by birth right. As the dominant class, subdivided into three levels, they received a large chunk of the countries resources. With their primary function – doing battle – obsolete, many samurai spent their allowances on prostitutes, alcohol, clothes, and gambling. Most were employed as administrators in their province, while some, like Musashi, took to writing and philosophizing, or the pursuit of another art or craft. Disenfranchised samurai in this period had little hope of relying on their martial prowess to earn a living, but also for ronins artisan- and craftsmanship were a viable option. Grossly oversimplifying things, there were two options for the warrior class. They could either fit in the bureaucratic system engineered by the totalitarian state while spending their allowances on conspicuous consumption, or they could use their creativity in a chosen discipline and pursue a personal goal. True heroes did the latter, although one managed to produce the foundations for one of the most pervasive misunderstanding of Japanese history.
To be continued…