Monday, November 02, 2020

The Dilemma Of 1876

 I have to admit to you that I am feeling more and more like a samurai in 1876.

The Hatorei edict of 1876, which forbid the wearing of swords by all non-governmental employees in public, was the last of a set of decrees over the years 1870-1876 that had slowly whittled away the status and income of samurai as samurai.  Western dress and industry was valued while the traditional old ways were not.  First dress, then hereditary military service, then income were all changed.

It is not as if the samurai were left without options, of course.  The Meiji government clearly encouraged them to throw themselves into the new order of things with abandon, which many did.  They were encouraged to find new roles in industry, forestry, agriculture, and education.  And many did - 23% of businessmen in the 1880's were from the former samurai class and 35% in the 1920's.

But others, of course did not make the change, whether from inability, unwillingness, or an attachment to the old ways and days that simply were not returning.  They fought - and perished - from the years 1874 to 1877, the most famous of these The Satsuma Rebellion (idealized in the Tom Cruise movie "The Last Samurai").

My sense is driven, I suppose, by the realization - ever growing- that the world has changed in the last nine months in profound ways and no matter what the outcome of the next few months, will never go back to the way it was. To somehow pretend that it will is engaging in the same sort of nostalgia that caused those samurai who could not adapt to look back as if they could restore the past when the world had clearly moved on.

I sit writing this on a quiet Sunday morning.  Everyone else has gone and it is only myself and the animals at home.  The animals are all asleep with mid morning naps.  The only sounds I hear are the occasional sound of a car driving by and the low hum the aquarium pump as it goes.  I am, in a sense, inside a small bubble while the outside world goes on with its wars of words and deeds and its progress.

If I could, I would stay here always, surrounded by sleeping animals who know nothing of mandating "progress" or ideologues but only of the gratefulness of home and food and books which contain knowledge and statements without trying to convert them into points of view or "the right way to think" or anything else but a clear and simple statement of the past.  

I am not allowed that option, of course:  the modern world knows nothing of allowing people to simply "be" anymore; we all must be engaged and in some cases weaponized in The Great Cause (whatever that cause happens to be). 

In writing of the samurai and their dilemma, I failed to mention a third group.

They were the martial artists (and craftsmen) who persevered between the two worlds, such as Yamaoka Tesshu, existing in a state in which they really neither succeeded in the new world nor fully held on to the old, living their lives in the limbo that the preservation of traditional skills becomes, always holding on to the past while questioning which parts of the future could and should be integrated.  They were a minority, as they will always be a minority in a world which is always straining towards more progress.  But somehow they managed to maintain their balance in a world which was straining towards mandating the adoption of new, even if they did not achieve worldly fame and success in doing so; the fact that traditional martial arts and crafts continue to exist demonstrate that their way was not in vain.  

Herein, perhaps, remains the path that is left to me: to be in world but not a part of its wars of words and deeds and policies, accepting by exception not default those things - be they items, objects, systems, or beliefs - are touted as "the way things are now".

A final note on the dilemma of the samurai:  their acceptance of the new order did not preclude the rise of a better order, as the conquest of Korea, the Russo-Japanese and Sino-Japanese Wars, or World War II demonstrates.  Unquestioning acceptance of progress and the new did not inherently lead to the better, only to the different.

The traditional martial arts and crafts survived.  Imperial Japan, based on the new Meiji Order, did not.


  1. The only thing I know about the Samurai is what I saw in the aforementioned Tom Cruise movie.

    In my opinion, any group of people that shuts themselves in a bubble and doesn't interact with the world passing them by guarantees themselves to become irrelevant. Look back in U.S. history and it is filled with such groups that no longer exist today. But those that adapt still exist and some of their old ways along with it. For me the lesson has always been to welcome the change and adapt with it but retain some of the most important aspects of the previous way and try to pass those on through tradition.

    1. Ed - It was not a bad movie, although (like most) a little different than the actual events (for example, Saigo's - the main character - death was not nearly as noble as it may have looked on the screen.

      Your point is taken Ed, but with two caveats:

      1) Not all change is good, and even those that adapt the change may not ultimately benefit from it. From the article above, many samurai adapted to the change - and then were washed away in the flood of Imperial Japan.

      2) Sometimes the changes are such that they simply cannot exist with the previous traditions. That can be a good thing, but not universally a good thing. Progress and change in and off themselves are not inherently universal goods.


  2. When the "Enlightened One" was elected in 2008, I couldn't believe it. It was passing the last gate on the way to the wasteland in my mind. When my daughter saw my face, she finally understood that the country I'd grown up in no longer existed.

    Technology has continued apace, and as an IT worker, I have noticed a bit of a struggle to keep up. I don't care one whit for what is being used as a gatekeeper for advancement at work. I've seen it before, and it will cause the same issues for the newbies as it did for me: "You can't leverage that knowledge, that isn't in your job description. You will have to change jobs to realize any reward from that certification." And only one certification is being encouraged / rewarded.

    So here I am, a man without a country, with a work ethic that is so foreign as to be inscrutable, in a job that is quickly passing my by. I've heard the term reinvention, but I think a more accurate view is finding where I fit now that so much has changed. I'm working to that end.

    I appreciate that others have gone through this before. I'd never heard of Yamaoka Tesshu. Short little blurb in wiki that, doubtless, didn't even scratch the surface of his life.

    Thanks for the education this morning. I appreciate it, and the thoughts that it generated.

    1. STxAR - IT workers have it the worst of all, it seems to me, because the industry is so fluid and ever evolving that to keep pace would be maddening. Make a wrong choice in your certifications or direction and I imagine that you will quickly find yourself having to make a U-turn - if that is possible at all.

      Reinvention may, for many of us, be the ultimate path forward. I now find myself in a position which uses little if any of the knowledge I have acquired over the last 20 years. My certifications are more standard and universally applicable, but am I looking at another 15 to 20 years to reach the same level of expertise? My life horizon is much shorter than that, let alone my expectations of work (or frankly, of being a viable candidate). Reinvention - in the true sense of the word, not just a slight side step - may be the only salvation for many of us. May we be flexible enough to endure it.

      If you are looking for a good reference on Tesshu, I highly recommend The Sword of No-Sword by John Stevens. Outside of Anatoly Anshin's The Truth of The Ancient Ways (which is a fairly scholarly work and not really an overview of Tesshu's life), it is a splendid introduction to the man.

  3. One wonders how things would have been if the Samurai had carried the day.

    Leaving politics aside and focusing on history... I look at some of the groups vying for power today... and when they get rolling, they tend to kill at least thousands. Stalin killed millions more than Hitler did. Mao Tse Tung killed tens of millions.

    I feel and fear that we are less in a position of becoming irrelevant, and more on the precipice of something truly awful.

    1. Glen, I am not sure that anything would have gone differently. In point of fact, the dissenting samurai did not object to the direction of the country necessarily, they objected to their place in it - for example, the aforementioned Saigo Takamori offered to go to Korea in 1873 and create an incident which would guarantee a war. What most likely would have happened is similar to what did happen: an expansionist Japan without the modernization that made the Empire possible, more of the late Manchu China such as what occurred in The Boxer Rebellion.

      It is alarming that individuals openly name themselves in support of movement endorse by Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, and other Communist dictators without any awareness (or acceptance if there is awareness) of the horrors that they brought. Somehow, they think, it will not happen this time, completely ignoring the fact that human nature, when in power, most often seems to veer towards the very worst of behavior.


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