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The Samurai And The Bakumatsu Era

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The Samurai and the Bakumatsu Era

Eric Lemaire


English Comp I

Mrs. Halperin

The Bakumatsu Era was a crucial period of Japanese history at the end of the Tokugawa Era or Edo Period. It was a period of war and anarchy that was brought about by the introduction of western culture and constant battles between the imperialists and the loyalists. During this time and throughout history, the samurai or bushi played an integral part in Japanese everyday life. As time progressed, we notice that many of them worked for the government and others worked and plotted against it. In a sense the samurai brought about their own demise. Throughout this period, the samurai maintained order and morality and did so with their code of conduct that was highly influenced by philosophies of Buddism and Zen. The last and fifteenth shogunate, which marked the most pivitol point in Japanese history, was administered by Tokugawa Yoshinobu who came into conflict with the emperor. During this time Japan underwent tremendous social, mental, and physical changes. Their culture was changing, their believes and priorities were different and this lead to a series of unprecedent events that forever changed Japan.

The system of government that was established in Japan during the Tokugawa Era was highly complex. At the very head of hierarichal ladder, there were the Emperors of Japan and the several aristocrats (elders) in Kyoto. They were considered the “figurehead” de jure rulers and they resembled the Queen of England in what is now called a constitutional monarchy, having very little influence and say in the government. The reasons for this was that they were considered “too holy” to be political leaders. Under the emperors, the next hierachy level were the shogun. They were “absolute rulers” and had national authority. The daimyo were local rulers, subordinate to the shogun and were comparable to the dukes in Europe. The samurai on the other hand were the military retainers of the daimyo, assuming regional and political authority and perhaps immunity. In other words, they were the “walking government”. Power was unequally dispersed in the shogunate, giving samurai and shogun rulers the ability to excercise moral relativism. The fates of civilians were in the hands of the samurai, for if they felt for one reason or another that one deserved not to live then they would take away ones life. For this reason and many more, the title “military-based dictatorship” was given to the government.

Samurai warriors began to appear during the 11th century when two powerful Japanese clans (Minamoto and Taira) fought against each other for power, land, and wealth. The samurai had their own divisions and social stratification. They were divided into three groups. There were the kenin, who were administrators, the mounted samurai, who were allowed to fight on horse-back, and the foot soldiers, who moved by foot. In theory, the samurai maintained order. The word samurai itself by definition means to protect. They were there to serve and defend both the emperor and the people. The Samurai followed a strict code of honor and conduct known as bushido, which literally meant “way of the warrior”. Bushido greatly reflects the notion of chivalry found in most western cultures particularly pertaining to the medieval principals of knighthood. There are seven virtues of bushido: rectitude, courage, benevolence, respect, honesty, honor/glory, and loyalty. Seppuku is another vital aspect of bushido and played an enormous role in the samurai lifestyle. It was a form of ritual suicide that was performed by horizontally slicing the abdomen when a samurai felt the failure to uphold his honor or was expressing his grief towards the death of his master. It was also practiced when one was captured by the enemy and finally accepted defeat.

Seppuku was taken highly seriously in the samurai entourage. It was often performed in a formal ceremony but was never a moment of grief or sorrow. It was considered to be quite honorable to engage in such an act and was often followed by the swift beheading of the person. Bushido, although quite honorable, many people find certain of its traditions to be quite barbaric. It is understandable, but this is a clear case of a cultural clash simply because our values are different. A way to look at it is that in the west we admire the person who gathers the most in life: those who struggle to acquire fame and wealth. In the east, they admire the person who is willing to give up everything and in the process gains the highest form of honor. A clear example of this can be found in the Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz’s 2003 movie The Last Samurai, where Tom Cruise’s character has managed to overcome his ethnocentric outlook of right vs. wrong and honor vs. dishonor and helps his good friend perform seppuku at the end of the war. The morals and values that were followed by the samurai gave them unmatched strength and enabled them to maintain pride and respect even through the eyes of the enemy.

The Tokugawa Era brought about 250 years of stability to Japan. It was considered to be the commencement of the early “modern period” of Japan. After many centuries of turmoil and insecurity, the country finally lived in peace. With no warfare and, fairly steady life style, the samurai lost their purpose. They were given pensions and awared grants for their several years of servitude and loyalty to the emperor. They tried to maintain their martial status but unfortunately their choice was to either put down their swords and become peasant farmers or move to the city and become paid advisors, confidants, bureaucrats, and adminstrators. Some began searching for tasks elsewhere. They became conspirators and formed private clans and gangs. Others worked secretly for the government or corrupted officials. They roamed the streets still carrying their traditional daisho and had the legal right to behead any commoner whom they felt did not express the utmost respect towards them. To a certain extent, the samurai took advantage of their power and privileges. In The Last Samurai, they are portrayed as the protagonists but were in fact they were quite ruthless. They enjoyed prestige and took the law into their own hands when they felt it was necessary. Their title also allowed them to have any woman they wanted



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