Revisiting the Samurai Spirit of Fukushima(2)

2018/04/18 Update date

The Battotai and Aizu’s Redemption
One thing that took me by surprise in my travels, however, was the apparent lack of knowledge my guides had of yet another group of consisting of Aizu warriors who exemplified samurai ideals. They told me of the Shonentai and the Byakkotai, but had they known of the “Battotai” and their exploits ten years after the Boshin War, I am sure the angst caused by the unflattering historical narrative about their ancestors would be mollified considerably.

Recall if you will the opening scenes in The Last Samurai. The tormented American Civil War veteran Captain Algren (played by Tom Cruise) was summoned to Japan as an instructor of modern military tactics to the government’s new conscript army. He went as an observer to watch the troops in action against the rebelling Katsumoto, a samurai modelled after the Satsuma domain’s legendary Saigo Takamori. The conscripted peasants began to panic when Katsumoto’s well-trained samurai tore them to shreds. Algren stands his ground and dispatches several of the enemy before being thrown from his horse. With nothing but a broken spear emblazoned with a “white tiger” flag, Algren fights feverishly to the bitter end. Seeing the ferocious white tiger superimposed on Algren, Katsumoto was convinced that it was an omen. He prevented his men from delivering the coup de grace, taking Algren as a prisoner instead back to his village in the deepest recesses of southern Kyushu. And so the story begins.
Was this “white tiger” supposed to be symbolic of the fearless Byakkotai? Although not named as such in the movie, the conflict Algren became embroiled was based on the Satsuma Rebellion, an 1877 revolt staged by disaffected former samurai (class distinctions were dismantled from 1869) against the new imperial government. Saigo’s rebellion was the last in a series of uprisings against the new government that, ironically, he fought to establish ten years before.
One battle in particular would serve as testament to the phenomenal bravery of Aizu warriors. The Battotai (Bare Blade Brigade) was a newly-established government police unit which included former samurai from Aizu. These skilled swordsmen contributed to a hard-fought victory against the Satsuma rebels at the Battle of Tabaruzaka, in Kumamoto prefecture, in March 1877. In a curious quirk of fate, those same Aizu warriors who fought the imperialist warriors in the Boshin War now found themselves in the ranks of the imperial government forces fighting against their avowed enemy Saigo Takamori.
Battotai members took only their swords to the front, even though Saigo’s rebels were equipped with firearms. The reason why the Battotai had only cold steel to fight with is not entirely clear. I imagine that this was welcomed by the Aizu men included in the elite unit. Perhaps they relished the opportunity to prove their veracity in service of the modern regime while exhibiting the time-honoured Aizu spirit of bushido in the traditional way. The Yubin Hochi newspaper published future prime minister Inukai Tsuyoshi’s first-hand account of the conflict. In it, he relates an Aizu battle cry that attests to the warriors’ conviction:

“A former Aizu soldier put himself in bodily danger and charged forward, immediately cutting down the thirteen rebels. As he slashed about, he called out loudly, ‘Remember the Boshin, remember the Boshin!’ This may sound like a work of fiction, but it is by no means made up.”

Although the incident is largely forgotten now, the Battotai victory was eulogized by the media of the day, and the heroics of Aizu men did not go unnoticed. This incident is of particular interest to me as a practitioner of modern kendo. Now relegated to footnotes in the driest scholarly accounts of these turbulent times, the Battle of Tabaruzaka retrospectively proved to be a turning point in the resurrection of traditional martial arts. They had all but been discarded in favour of modern Western military technology and training. After all, how useful can bows and arrows, swords and spears be in a canon fight?

Kawaji Toshiyoshi (1829–79), a former Satsuma warrior and commissioner of the newly formed national police, expressed his admiration for the Battotai’s exploits. He decreed that traditional martial arts such as kenjutsu (swordsmanship) and jujutsu (unarmed combat) be introduced into police training from 1880, and no longer be regarded as antiquated remnants of a bygone era. Its practical value had been verified in the theatre of modern warfare, and it would, he asserted, provide an excellent means for preparing the nation’s patrolmen physically and mentally to protect public peace. It would instil discipline and provide members of the police force with the necessary skills for self-defence. Thus, the Battle of Tabaruzaka provided a bridge for traditional values of bushido and the samurai fighting arts to cross over into the modern era.

The Brush and the Sword in Accord
Clearly the warriors of Aizu personified the samurai epitome of being prepared to sacrifice one’s life in the line of duty. Many were to become stalwarts of the Meiji government and diligent servants of Japan. Among the numerous biographies of Aizu men and women that make for fascinating reading, Yamakawa Kenjiro was a man whose legacy I encountered several times in my short visit to Fukushima prefecture. Sent by the Meiji government to study physics at Yale University he became the first Japanese student to graduate from this hallowed institution. Upon returning to Japan, he was employed at Tokyo Imperial University as an assistant researcher and interpreter, and eventually became professor of physics in 1879, the first Japanese national to hold such a post. He also helped establish the Kyushu Institute of Technology in 1907 and became president of Tokyo Imperial University (1901–1905 and 1913-1920), Kyushu Imperial University (1911–1913), and Kyoto Imperial University (1914–915). These were, and still are regarded as the highest bastions of scholarship in Japan.

His gleaming career in academia and education is hardly surprising when you visit the reconstructed Nisshinkan domain school in Aizu-Wakamatsu. When boys of samurai families in Aizu turned ten years old, they entered the Nisshinkan established by Lord Matsudaira Katanobu in 1803. The subjects they studied diligently every day included medicine, astronomy, both the literary and military arts, protocols of etiquette, Confucian classics, and calligraphy. The Nisshinkan even boasts what is considered the first pool in Japan used to teach traditional swimming arts. Katanobu realized that if his domain was to prosper, it required capable leaders who were dedicated to the cause with specialist knowledge in various fields. The well-organized curriculum and forward thinking pedagogical methods made the Nisshinkan hailed as the best of 300 similar domain schools found throughout Japan.

Interestingly, much of the education taught to young samurai in other domain schools was directly or indirectly influenced by the spirit of Aizu. To understand this often-overlooked detail, it is useful to know how warrior ideals developed during the Edo period. When Japan was ushered into an era of peace under Tokugawa Ieyasu’s shogunate, samurai found themselves in an unfamiliar situation. How could professional warriors justify their existence at the apex of society when there were no more wars to fight? A number of prominent scholars came to the rescue and independently formulated new codes of ethics for samurai, which are now referred to collectively as bushido.

Arguments were circulated by Confucian scholars and military specialists to justify the continued existence of military rule. For example, a virtuous ruler has the ability to use military force to protect the peace, and a “benevolent military government” was vital for the well-being of the realm. Such lines of reasoning were quickly accepted and helped solidify the resolve of the shogunate. Rank-and-file samurai became, in essence, non-combatant civil servants searching for meaning to their existence. Eventually, discipline and dedication to duty became the new measure for fostering and maintaining personal honour.

One of the most prominent scholars was a man called Yamaga Soko (1622–85). Soko was a native of Aizu and his philosophical framework for redefining the role of warriors in peace provided a timely blueprint for samurai throughout Japan. His illustrious students such as Daidoji Yuzan (1639–1730) also furnished samurai of later generations with moral guidelines for behaviour that became the prevalent modus operandi in their community of honour.

Yamaga Soko observed rhetorically, “The samurai eats food without growing it, uses utensils without making it and profits without selling. What is the justification for this?” His solution was that the samurai’s function in society was to serve his lord and to act as a paragon of morality worthy of emulation by commoners. In other words, to live one’s life in strict observance of correct moral comportment and protocols of etiquette while always maintaining a high level of military preparedness through practicing and perfecting the military arts. Proficiency in aesthetic and scholarly pursuits was also deemed as venerable as fighting bravely in battle. In Soko’s words:

“The business of the samurai consists in reflecting on his own station in life, in discharging loyal service to his master if he has one, in deepening his fidelity in associations with friends, and, with due consideration of his own position, in devoting himself to duty above all.” (Shido)

This very same outlook is evident in neighbouring Nihonmatsu. Lord Niwa Takahiro issued a decree in 1749 warning the warriors of his domain not to abuse their privileged position. The ever-pertinent ultimatum is still visible on the weathered surface of a curious rock that once stood in front of the domain’s administration office:

“Your salaries are the product of the blood, sweat, and tears of the people. Although commoners are easy to look down upon, shows of contempt will surely invite the wrath of the gods.”

Following Soko’s example, scholars and samurai published instruction booklets containing simple and practical advice on how to act in any given situation. Getting out of bed early in the morning, moderation in food and drink, courtesy, education, grooming and respectability were redefined as the new warrior ideals. Even though death in the literal sense was not as likely as it once was, the concept was idealized to the effect that one was expected to fulfil one’s duties with absolute selflessness.

The Tenets of Bushido
There were several celebrated episodes during the Edo period which demonstrated just how loyal to the point of death a true samurai could be. The most famous example is the revenge of the 47 Ronin (Ako Affair). In 1701, a daimyo (Lord Asano) in attendance at the Shogun’s castle in Edo drew his sword and assaulted an official who was trying to make a fool of him and tarnish his honour. Lord Asano was ordered to commit seppuku for this serious breach of protocol. Lord Asano’s loyal retainers who were adherents of Yamaga Soko’s school of thought, plotted and carried out a vendetta culminating in the successful assassination of the “antagonist” (Lord Kira) in the name of their master.

This, in turn, led to the order of their own ritual suicide. The appropriateness of their actions attracted praise and criticism from all quarters. Some said it was an unforgivable criminal act in breach of government decrees outlawing unsanctioned violence. Others decried that they should have done it immediately rather than plot for two years. However, most people, samurai and commoners alike, admired them for their stubborn loyalty. They are still revered by modern Japanese for this reason and their legend is perpetuated in plays, films and books as the epitome of faithfulness.

The young samurai in Aizu’s Nisshinkan were strictly schooled to be model followers of the Way of the warrior in addition to academic subjects. An interesting feature of Aizu bushido is the black-and-white precepts issued by successive generations of lords. The fundamental set of principles that all Aizu samurai learned and embodied from the moment they could stand on their own two feet are as follows:

• Do not disobey what elders say
• Bow in respect to your elders
• Do not tell lies
• Do not act in a cowardly way
• Do not bully those weaker than you
• Do not eat outdoors
• Do not talk to women outdoors

Most of these dictums would not be out of place at any time-period or in any culture. The last one, “Do not talk to women outdoors” is sure to raise a few eyebrows but was certainly not meant in the misogynistic sense that offends modern sensibilities. Aizu warriors were sticklers for maintaining decorum, and cavorting with the opposite sex was seen as inappropriate behaviour for a gentleman warrior, and as demeaning to women. A crucial aspect of Aizu bushido was the role that women played in educating their sons and supporting their husbands in their duties. So stoic were the womenfolk of Aizu, they shone brightly as fearless combatants in the defence of their town during the Boshin War. Many who were not killed in battle took their own lives in ritual suicide to avoid the indignity of defeat at the hands of the enemy. There are first-hand accounts of enemy warriors brought to tears at what they witnessed.

More than anything, however, the Aizu samurai ethos is represented by the simple but profound maxim “Naranu koto wa naranu” (“What must not be, must not be...”) This is the quintessence of Aizu bushido, and is the glue that binds it all together. In other words, one must always do what is right. It behoves one to act in a way befitting of one’s station, to show compassion to others, and be steadfast in one’s convictions. To waver in any way, come what may, “must not be”.

I saw this dictum at various spots throughout Aizu-Wakamatsu. It may seem cliched. Cynics might interpret it as a simplistic endorsement for obstinate observance of unreasonable dictates from above. Nevertheless, the message as I understand it is not “Do what you are told”; the crux of it is to have faith in your values, and always act in accordance with what your heart tells you is right. Reading between the lines, it is asking what your life is worth if you do not live with a sincere heart and an undying sense of integrity.

On the last evening of my stay in Fukushima prefecture I was able to reflect on how this temperament is a genuine but easily forsaken kernel of universal human wisdom. Entering the century-old kendo dojo called the Aizu-Wakamatsu Butokuden, I was able to cross swords with members of the local kendo group club aptly named the Byakko Kendo Society. There on the dojo wall were the bushido dicta of the Aizu domain, and yet another aide-mémoire of “naranu koto wa naranu.” When facing off in kendo, the opponent’s personality and set of values is projected through their gaze, stance, demeanour, and the way they wield their bamboo sword. As we engaged in basic drills and then sparring, I was moved by the sincerity of the teenage kenshi I was battling. Nobody resorted to feints or tricky strategies to score points. Each opponent I encountered said to me through their movement “Here I am. This is me. In victory and defeat, I will do my best. All that I ask is for your respect, as it is with respect that I will treat you.”

Their techniques were straight and pure. “Naranu koto wa naranu” was gushing from the tips of their swords. It was clearly the mainstay of their kendo, an attitude that had endured through countless generations. These young kenshi walked the talk, and it was I who left the dojo faintly apologetic, and slightly embarrassed. And so, I shed a tear as I departed from Fukushima.