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As one of the few surviving autobiographical writings from early Japan, in Musui’s Story, Katsu Kokichi narrates his life as a late Tokugawa-period samurai. Amid the Tokugawa period, also known as the Edo period, grand wars and conflicts slowly dwindled in number and size. The Edo period meant that samurai were no longer greatly needed. Still, the era likewise saw Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai, written by Yamamoto Tsunetomo, published. Tsunetomo, influenced by his time as a Buddhist priest, a Confucian scholar, and heavily by his master, Mitsushige, relayed his private feelings and discussions that formed bushido or “the Way of the Samurai.” Katsu embodies some of the traditional samurai ideals written in Hagakure like exceptional fighting skills and bravery. However, the changed reality of Japan meant that Katsu had to adapt as other actions such as entitlement for personal gain and finding different options to make money became unorthodox.
Katsu’s bravery represents an orthodox samurai ideal. Samurai were trained from a young age to approach risky situations with level-headed bravery, while anticipating and solving any forthcoming problems to ensure a successful outcome. Bravery and cleverness transferred into Katsu’s life because he remained composed and quick on his feet in the face of precarious situations. Katsu states that he had to place a copper coin on a doll in the middle of a field at eight years old. “By the time my turn came, it was past midnight and pitch black… but I did it, and everyone praised me”. Hagakure supports this behavior stating, “ from the time of infancy one should encourage bravery and avoid trivially frightening or teasing the child”. Accordingly, bravery is an orthodox value that Katsu embodies.
Katsu’s fighting skills reveal one of the ideals of an orthodox samurai. During his time fencing at the Otani practice hall, Katsu “demolished every good-for-nothing in my own neighborhood…everybody obeyed me. I feared absolutely no one”. Fighting was a major element of a samurai’s identity. Many were trained from a young age to perfect the expertise. His actions reflect high skill level and portray duty and honor about what he believes is right and necessary when fighting. Katsu’s fighting skills also raise his reputation by adapting to the fact that there are no major battles or wars to test them in.
Katsu’s decision to not become a retainer to a master is unorthodox. Hagakure states that a “man is a good retainer to the extent that he earnestly places importance in his master”. Instead, Katsu does not become a retainer and his loyalty is only to himself. “I made myself at home… doing whatever I pleased… I gave lessons every day. It seemed pointless to stay much longer”. Thus, Katsu embodies the ways of the 47 rōnin, or master-less samurai, because both are not anchored by masters who would have guided and taught them throughout their life-long dedication. Rather, they made their own decisions and go through their lives how they see fit. Therefore, Katsu acts in an unorthodox manner against actual samurai life.
Katsu takes an unorthodox view to a samurai’s entitlement and respect by using the ideal to his benefit. Hagakure stresses the value of proper etiquette stating that, “ to treat a person harshly is the way of middle-class lackeys”. The opposite of this action is represented when a laborer helps Katsu find work after running away, Katsu is fed up because as “a samurai, he was wasting his time at a job that would never lead to anything”. Here, Katsu is unorthodox because he does not respect others of lower status but expects his own. However, even though the late Edo period left samurai in a state of uncertainty, members of the lower-class were required to show respect to the samurai. Thus, Katsu does embody samurai principles of entitlement, despite rude and unorthodox they may seem, throughout his life in order to benefit in an ambiguous period.
Another way that Katsu is an unorthodox samurai is his decision to find other incomes to supplement his stipend. Even though all samurai receive a government stipend, the amount varied. As a low-ranking samurai, Katsu is dealt a small stipend which meant his financial security was usually in question. Limited income means a shift in Katsu’s identity as a samurai which gives way to his business ventures such as appraising and dealing swords. “I got used to the business…and by attending the second-hand goods market every night, I found I could really bring in profits”. This contrasts with the Hagakure which states, “relying only on our own sagacity we become self-interested’. Hence, Katsu getting into business, while frowned upon by others in society, meant that he could find more ways to prosper despite his limited stipend.
Katsu Kokichi, narrator of Musui’s Story, shows his true samurai colors by demonstrating a few orthodox bushido values like bravery and strong fighting skills from the monograph, Hagakure. Yet, in a changing Tokugawa period, he also resorted to various unorthodox ideals for survival. The unorthodox ideals of his entitlement, such as not having a master, and initiative for financial gains because of a low stipend may have made Katsu an outlier, but a samurai would possess these values during the period. Very few samurai knew how to operate in the real world which did not seem to have any use for them since there are no wars taking place. Interestingly, Katsu’s unorthodox principles can be summed up by an orthodox statement from Hagakure that urges one to “not rely on following the degree of understanding that you have discovered, but simply think, ‘This is not enough’.
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