A Mischievous Samurai Describes His Rough-and-Tumble Life in 19th Century Japan

The samu­rai class first took shape in Japan more than 800 years ago, and it cap­tures the imag­i­na­tion still today. Up until at least the sev­en­teenth cen­tu­ry, their life and work seems to have been rel­a­tive­ly pres­ti­gious and well-com­pen­sat­ed. By Kat­su Kokichi’s day, how­ev­er, the way of the samu­rai was­n’t what it used to be. Born in 1802, Kat­su lived through the first half of the cen­tu­ry in which the samu­rai as we know it would go extinct, ren­dered unsup­port­able by evolv­ing mil­i­tary tech­nol­o­gy and a chang­ing social order. But read­ing his auto­bi­og­ra­phy Musui’s Sto­ry: The Auto­bi­og­ra­phy of a Toku­gawa Samu­rai, one gets the feel­ing that he would­n’t exact­ly have excelled even in his pro­fes­sion’s hey­day.

“From child­hood, Kat­su was giv­en to mis­chief,” says the site of the book’s pub­lish­er. “He ran away from home, once at thir­teen, mak­ing his way as a beg­gar on the great trunk road between Edo and Kyoto, and again at twen­ty, pos­ing as the emis­sary of a feu­dal lord. He even­tu­al­ly mar­ried and had chil­dren but nev­er obtained offi­cial prefer­ment and was forced to sup­ple­ment a mea­ger stipend by deal­ing in swords, sell­ing pro­tec­tion to shop­keep­ers, and gen­er­al­ly using his mus­cle and wits.”

But don’t take it from The Uni­ver­si­ty of Ari­zona Press when you can hear selec­tions of Kat­su’s dis­solute picaresque of a life retold in his own words — and nar­rat­ed in Eng­lish trans­la­tion — in the ani­mat­ed Voic­es of the Past video above.

“Unable to dis­tin­guish right and wrong, I took my excess­es as the behav­ior of heroes and brave men,” writes a 42-year-old Kat­su in a par­tic­u­lar­ly self-fla­gel­lat­ing pas­sage. “In every­thing, I was mis­guid­ed, and I will nev­er know how much anguish I caused my rel­a­tives, par­ents, wife, and chil­dren. Even more rep­re­hen­si­ble, I behaved most dis­loy­al­ly to my lord and mas­ter the shogun and with utter­most defi­ance to my supe­ri­ors. Thus did I final­ly bring myself to this low estate.” But if was from that inglo­ri­ous posi­tion that Kat­su could pro­duce such an enter­tain­ing and illu­mi­nat­ing set of reflec­tions. He may have been no Miyamo­to Musashi, but he left us a more vivid descrip­tion of every­day life in nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry Japan than his exalt­ed con­tem­po­raries could have man­aged.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Hand-Col­ored 1860s Pho­tographs Reveal the Last Days of Samu­rai Japan

How to Be a Samu­rai: A 17th Cen­tu­ry Code for Life & War

The 17th Cen­tu­ry Japan­ese Samu­rai Who Sailed to Europe, Met the Pope & Became a Roman Cit­i­zen

The His­to­ry of Ancient Japan: The Sto­ry of How Japan Began, Told by Those Who Wit­nessed It (297‑1274)

Hear an Ancient Chi­nese His­to­ri­an Describe The Roman Empire (and Oth­er Voic­es of the Past)

Watch the Old­est Japan­ese Ani­me Film, Jun’ichi Kōuchi’s The Dull Sword (1917)

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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