The Tokugawa rule significantly changed the concept and build of the Japanese samurai warrior due to multiple factors, the most significant being the introduction of an era of peace. Homosexuality among samurai was also accentuated during this period; the book of short stories titled Comrades Loves of the Samurai highlights this fact and emphasizes the lack of masculinity through feminine physical and emotional descriptions. Whereas Hagakure sets out an array of quotations relating to the proper yet strict conduct of a samurai.
Under one of the most famous and peaceful reigns in Japanese history, the Tokugawa period (1600-1868), the definition of the ideal samurai man, his constructs of masculinity and his unwritten code of conduct, ‘Bushido’ (‘the way of the warrior’) was altered. Though samurai were present from the 12th century onwards, it was only the lack of warfare during the Tokugawa rule that encouraged and supported their study in literature. With the help of the Zen religion strengthening their mindset, samurai led an extremely disciplined life, as illustrated in Hagakure, a book of philosophical quotations pertaining to the proper behavior and thinking of samurai. Pride, honor and loyalty were the main concepts in a warrior’s life, when one of these were incomplete, it could bring about hara-kiri (or seppuku), a suicide exclusively known to the samurai through disembowelment in a brutal manner.
However, this ritual was appeased over time, the first documented amendment being recorded during the Tokugawa reign. At this time, short stories were also emerging about homosexual samurai, an example being Comrade Loves of the Samurai, where many of the samurai were described in feminine ways; their fairness and beauty being compared to flowers. Speculation is present over the possible effect the living arrangements of the samurai and distance from their families during the Tokugawa era had on male-male love relationships. There can be seen a distinct difference in the descriptions of samurai in the two books mentioned, with Hagakure reflecting ideals from before the Tokugawa time and Comrade Loves of the Samurai illustrating views during the peaceful Tokugawa period.
There existed strictness towards samurai, requiring many obligations and a certain degree of obedience from them, not only to their master but also to their Bushido laws. Cowardice, even towards death, was seen as an enemy in life, being heavily looked down upon (Suzuki, D.T., 1959, p.65); the samurai was taught not to fear death, furthermore, to embrace it, “Bushido means the determined will to die. When you are at the parting of the ways, do not hesitate to choose the way to death,” (Suzuki, D.T., 1959, p.73). Also, as Hagakure states, “meditation on inevitable death should be performed daily.” When all fear has been eliminated, it is said that the samurai has mastered the art of swordsmanship, “If…one is able to live as though his body were already dead, he gains freedom in the Way. His whole life will be without blame, and he will succeed in his calling,” (Hagakure). Self-preservation, maintaining a name and avoiding shame were considered top priorities (Ikegami, E., 1995, p.17); and a samurai literally could not live with shame, “If you made a mistake in aiming, and you live to tell about it, you are a coward [but if] you die, you might be thought crazy, but it will not bring you shame,” (Ikegami, E., 1995, p.285). Not only was a warrior to uphold honor and dignity through bravery, but it was demanded of him to commit hara-kiri, if there was a breach.
Samurai carried two swords with them at all times, a long one for fighting and a shorter one in case he violated the laws bestowed upon him and hara-kiri was the only option (Suzuki, D.T., 1959, p.93). Hara-kiri entailed piercing one’s abdomen on the left side with the shorter sword and dragging it across to the right side, then twisting the weapon and pulling it upwards. A second man was placed beside the samurai with the duty of decapitating him once the act was completed in order to reduce the length of suffering, this was called kaishaku. Although this custom was introduced before the Tokugawa period, it was only during the reign that it was “officially established as part of the seppuku ceremony,” (Seward, J., 1968, p.61). Even though seppuku was seen as one of the most important notions of Bushido, it was also considered by Tokugawa government as unnecessary and ruthless, unless it took place in the battlefield. Furthermore, it was under the Tokugawa reign that seppuku was appeased; honor was believed to still be upheld if an executed warrior chose to “simply scratch or cut the skin lightly” and subsequently allowed kaishaku to take place directly afterward (Varley, H.P., et al., 1970, p.35). It seems that with the Tokugawa government a deeper sense of sensitivity and compassion arrived; which most probably resulted from the prolonged peace after long periods of combat.
The Buddhist-related religion of Zen helped to shape samurai ideals, supporting and facilitating the samurai mindset; being a religion of the will, it upheld intuition over intellect, teaching to never look back and to treat life and death with indifference (Suzuki, D.T., 1959, p.61). The emphasis on looking forwards without distraction was suitable for samurai as they needed focus in order to defeat their enemies successfully without wavering. “Japanese genius went either to priesthood or to soldiery. The spiritual co-operation of the two professions could not help but contribute to the creation of…Bushido,” (Suzuki, D.T., 1959, p.69). It was believed that violence, an act of masculinity, was acceptable as it was necessary for the samurai to sustain his power (Ikegami, E., 1995, p.34). Zen taught samurai to be honorable and disciplined, explaining that the sword is a “symbol of loyalty and self-sacrifice…identified with the annihilation of things that lie in the way of peace, justice, progress and humanity…our own greed, anger and folly” (Suzuki, D.T., 1959, pp.89-90). Hagakure recounted stories in order to give guidance to samurai. Therefore Zen shared the same ideals explained in Hagakure, and gave the samurai a sense of courage accompanied with mental strength to accomplish his duty. Therefore it can be seen that Bushido, with the help of Zen, laid downthe foundation for samurai masculinity, endorsing bravery and honor.
Two and a half centuries of peace was fï¿½ted by the Tokugawa regime, however this posed a problem for warriors as it meant that they were no longer required. Previously in the Japanese feudal system they had been called upon to fight for their lords against other provinces for power and land. After the Suppression of the Shimabara Rebellion in 1638, peace was established which brought prosperity and a new merchant class with the expansion of castle towns in the various fiefs. Educated administrators were in demand and had taken the place of importance that samurai once maintained; this change in circumstances shaped the Japanese view of the ideal samurai. Formerly, a samurai need only to not fear death and possess skills in swordsmanship, yet now, the Confucian ideal of the complete man being both a warrior and a scholar was adopted in Japan (Suzuki, D.T., 1959, p.11).
Comrade Loves of the Samurai, by Ihara Saikaku is a collection of short stories regarding homosexual samurai written in the Tokugawa era; when compared to Hagakure, the descriptions of samurai are extremely contrasting. While Hagakure illustrates the Japanese samurai with all things associated with masculinity such as courage, honor and indifference to emotions; Comrade Loves of the Samurai portrays samurai as feminine, physically and emotionally. Many samurai were described as having a “beautiful face that even the flowers of Kyoto grew pale before him,” (Saikaku, I., 1928, p.5) or as being “cultured and elegant and so extremely beautiful that he troubled to eyes of those who looked at him,” (Saikaku, I., 1928, p.12).
These narratives seem to better suit women than men and convey the author’s opinion on the degradation of samurai masculinity. Not only does Saikaku demean the physicality of samurai but also their weakness in emotions; in the first tale, a page, the son of a samurai and also a samurai in training, falls ill and eventually passes away at the thought of never seeing his elder lover again. In another tale, another young samurai is a secret admirer and is bedridden to the point that priests pray on behalf of him for days and he does not recover until his love is exposed and returned. This is precisely what Hagakure and Bushido warned against, letting emotions disturb one’s concentration. Although Saikaku portrays samurai as feminine, and emotionally weak, honor is still upheld, “I must perform hara-kiri, for I am not so base as to outlive the breach of a promise,” (Saikaku, I., 1928, p.8).
Although homosexuality among samurai was present before the Tokugawa era, it was never truly exposed. One of the possible reasons for the exposure could be an increase in homosexuality, which in turn can most probably be explained through a change in living arrangements. “The life of male-dominated samurai communities fostered cultural attitudes that idealized relationships of trust between individual warriors and expressed them in the idioms and sentiments of intense male love,” (Ikegami, E., 1995, p.209).
The adjustment in living layouts placed during Tokugawa times increased the distance between samurai and their family by demanding that samurai live together in the capital city, further from their hometowns. The increase in contact between samurai would have strengthened their relationship and hence, their feelings for one another. It is believed that homosexuality was heightened due to kabuki mono, which essentially means ‘crooked person’ who were typically samurai with no masters, and who had formed street gangs at the beginning of the Tokugawa reign. These kabuki mono youths usually defended their peers against people of higher authority; this relationship involving loyalty and trust most likely would have played as part of a catalyst for samurai homosexuality (Ikegami, E., 1995, pp.205-209).
Therefore, it is clearly established that during the Tokugawa reign there was a significant shift in the masculinity of samurai, this can be seen through the comparison of old-fashioned texts such as Hagakure and satirical pieces such as Comrade Loves of the Samurai. Previous expectations were altered to suit the change in the warfare environment; with the Tokugawa government appeared peace and prosperity. An increase in living standards and luxury goods was enjoyed by all and heightened the appreciation of life. No longer was there felt to be a need for such brutal acts like hara-kiri, and without war there was no necessity for honor and loyalty. A new interest in the arts such as literature and poetry softened the hardened emotions of samurai; possibly allowing them to express their feelings more openly. However, because the majority of their time was spent among other samurai, these feelings were communicated towards their comrades. All these factors contributed to the transformation in samurai masculinity and the lack of integration with Bushido.
Ikegami, E., 1995, Taming of the Samurai, Harvard University Press, London, England.
King, W.L., 1993, Zen and the Way of the Sword, Oxford University Press, New York.
Nitobe, I., 1969, Bushido: The Soul of Japan, Charles E. Tuttle Company, Japan.
Saikaku, I., 1928, Comrade Loves of the Samurai, Oxford University Press, New York.
Seward, J., 1968, Hara-Kiri, Charles E. Tuttle Company, Japan.
Suzuki, D.T., 1959, Zen and Japanese Culture, Princeton University Press, New York.
Tsunetomo,Y., 1978, Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai, Kodansha International, London.
Varley, P.H., Morris, N., Morris, I., 1970, The Samurai, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, New Zealand.