I found that even some of the relatively knowledgeable foreigner friends did not know a basic fact of Japanese history that all Japanese take for common knowledge: The Emperor was never samurai.
The word “samurai” derives from the word “to serve”. The emperor is nobody’s servant. So it is quite obvious from the linguistics of it. It is also important historically.
Written history in Japan began in the year 720 when the emperor ordered the publication of “Nihon Shoki” the official government record of events. A little before that in the year 712, the government ordered the creation of “Kojiki“, or “Record of Old Things”, which was the transcription of oral history that had been passed down through the generations by story tellers. “Kojiki” recounts the story of how Emperor Tennmu, one of the sons of the Sun Goddess, landed in Nakatsu Kuni (believed to be in Kyushu. I was in a town called Nakatsu while I wrote this) and embarked on an eastward conquest that expanded his territory to include the area that is now known as Kansai. But all of this happened before written history. There are no records of the emperor actually leading troops into battle after written history has started.
By the late 9th century, the emperor was already a figurehead. Actual rule was performed by aristocrats who served as “sesshou“, proxies, if the emperor was young or was a woman and as “kanpaku“, advisors, if the emperor was a grown man. By the 10th century, the Fujiwara clan had attained a monopoly on the “sesshou” and “kanpaku” positions. This was sometimes realized by marrying the daughter of the Fujiwara clan into the imperial household. The heir to the throne would then be the grandson of the Fujiwara patriarch, who would then be in a position to advise the young emperor on matters of state. The “kanpaku” was the de facto emperor for several centuries. A retired emperor was called “joukou“, which was initially a ceremonial position but eventually became an advisory position more powerful than the puppet emperor. The influence of the “joukou” increased in the late 11th century. To counter the combined weight of the emperor and the “joukou“, a retired “kanpaku” came to be called “taikou” which became another powerful advisory position. From the 9th to most of the 12th century, politics was carried out largely through court diplomacy, detached from the nitty gritty of the battle field. These court aristocrats were called “kugeh” and lived in a lofty world of poetry and incense, away from the reality of the common people around them.
The filthy business of violence was relegated to the lower orders. The “kebiishi“, which policed the streets of Kyoto, were considered a supplementary position not counted as one of the imperial bureaucracy. That was all right as long as the nation was peaceful. But as the faction ridden government became ineffectual, and as new methods of steel production made steel instruments cheaper and more available, a new warring underclass was born and took matters into their own hands. Initially, they were called “yebisu” (barbarians) or “tsuwamono” (strong men) and they were despised by the aristocracy. But they would eventually become known as the “samurai”.
The samurai class eventually consolidated into two main factions, the Taira clan (which fought under a plain red banner) and the Minamoto clan (who held a plain white banner). The rivalry is said to be the origin of kouhaku (紅白), the contest of red-team and white-team seen in so many competitions. Their conflict culminated in the Genpei War. After much bloodshed, Minamoto Yoritomo became the first warrior to unite the nation under his banner. The imperial government finally woke up to the reality and offered Yoritomo the position of “shogun”, the generalismo of all imperial soldiers. Thus was born the first shogunate which lasted from 1192 to 1333 (Kamakura period). It was now the shogunate that held the real power. The imperial government continued to exist, but its actual influence waned.
No sooner was the shogunate born than the shogun became figurehead. Hojo Tokimasa became “shikken”, regent to the shogun, and the Hojo clan held that position until the shogunate fell apart. More damaging was that the “kugeh” embarked on a power sharing scheme by marrying their daughters into the shogun’s and the regent’s bloodlines. Adopting the esoteric customs of the aristocracy, the highest samurai leaders forgot their warrior roots and became very much like the poetry writing, incense burning, culturally sophisticated kugeh. Eventually, the rule became ineffectual again and after the invasion of Khublai Khan’s Mongolian forces (1274) burdened the shogunate with massive military expenditures, the shogunate went downhill.
A group of revivalists lead by Emperor Godaigo fought and distroyed the first shogunate, hoping to bring back the rule of the emperor again. A group of warriors lead by Ashikaga Takauji sided with the emperor. But once the shogunate was defeated, the “kugeh” treated the warriors with such disdain that Takauji broke ranks with the emperor and formed his own government. Another puppet emperor was put on the throne and Japan experienced a schism of two emperors between 1333 and 1392. The new puppet emperor appointed Takauji shogun and the second shogunate was born (Muromachi period).
Once peace was attained, the “kugeh”, once again, married their daughters into the shogunate. The third shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu actually doubled as the “kanpaku”, the emperor’s advisor. Soon the shogun became figurehead again. His power was eaten away by the regional lords that surrounded him. The 8th shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa was more interested in art and gardening and his wife took over politics. He was the Nero who fiddled as Kyoto burned. He was not particularly a tyrant, just detached from the real world in a wimpy aristocratic way.
It was during his reign that Japan entered “Sengoku Jidai” or “The Era of the Warring Lords” (1467 to 1568). This is the era in which many Kurosawa films (“Kagemusha” “Ran” “The Hidden Fortress” “Throne of Blood”) and some samurai video games (“Onimusha”) are set. For a century, Japan was in a state of perpetual war. The Muromachi shogunate, powerless and ornamental, persisted until 1573. Meanwhile, in this era when real power counted, the power of the the “kugeh” who depended on peacetime court diplomacy, was diminished to nil.
Still, when Oda Nobunaga emerged as the primary power in the nation, he made offerings to the gentrified shogun in order to legitimize his conquests of what resistance remained. Nobunaga allied with the shogun, who sought to use Nobunaga to bring him back to power. If Nobunaga played along, his lineage might have ruled Japan as the new regent clan with the shogun as figurehead. Nobunaga, a visionary with grand designs, was not satisfied with such antiquated status quo and eventually collided with the shogun, who used his authority to unite all of Nobunaga’s enemies against him. A coordinated effort to surround and defeat Nobunaga failed twice. Evidence suggests that after he triumphed over the shogun, Nobunaga had plans to usurp the Emperor as well (hence the video game Nobunaga’s Ambition). His over sized ambition may have contributed to his assassination.
After Nobunaga’s death, however, Hashiba Hideyoshi took over. He showed no interest in becoming regent or shogun, but he did not try to overthrow the emperor either. Instead, he became kanpaku, chief adviser to the Emperor. As such, he enlisted the aristocracy to legitimize his authority. With the nation nearly united, the emperor and his minions once again entered the spotlight. Hideyoshi’s clan, however, eventually lost power after his death.
In 1603, Tokugawa Ieyasu was appointed shogun and opened the third and last shogunate (Edo period). His government started out as a military dictatorship, but soon fell into to the trap of gentrification again. By the latter half of the period, high ranking bureaucrats were embarrassed to admit that they were doing such barbarous things as kendo practice. In a diary of a bureaucrat of the time, there is a part where he recounts how his superior told him to say that his bruise was a result of a bad fall. By the end, the officers of the shogunate were court aristocrats with ornamental swords.
Still, there were plenty of tough guys around. The “barbarians” and “rougue men” far from the center of power maintained their martial ways. They trained their children in the ways of the warrior in hopes that someday they would be called to duty and their skills as swordsmen would be useful. They waited more than ten generations, preserving their skills throughout, before an anti-Tokugawa alliance rose up in the wake of Commodore Perry’s forced opening of the country and restored the emperor to power for the third time.
In 1889, the Japanese Imperial Constitution was established, firmly putting the emperor in the role of the constitutional monarch.
What I wanted to say was that Japanese history was a process of repeated gentrification and (…er…what’s the opposite?) relapse into military rule. Or maybe you could call it repeated erection of strong military governments that relapsed into gentrified aristocratic rule. The socially “lower” samurai were constantly trying to legitimize their bloodline once they came to power. That is why they kept inter-breeding with the kugeh. Due to a mix of religion and tradition, the kugeh refused to have anything to do with the lowly business of killing. That does not mean that they never assassinated their own. They just never lead armies. (The life of the kugeh in the 11th century, before the ascent of the samurai, is described in the book “The Tale of Genji” and other works of literature.) Since the aristocracy never held military power, their power increased in times of peace, while when the nation was at war their power decreased. This is in stark contrast to the more martial aristocracy of Europe.
Because there were two ruling classes, the kugeh and the samurai, one which benefited from peace and the other which ascended in times of war, Japan swung like a pendulum between ascetic culture and martial culture. If you look at the time table, you can see that Japan alternated between 150-200 years of continuous peace and 80-100 years of perpetual war. You can argue that Japan was in its last age of war in the century between Commodore Perry (1853) and the San Francisco Peace Treaty (1951). That was after 200 years of absolute peace under Tokugawa rule which followed 100 years of Sengoku period, which followed a relatively brief period of peace under the Muromachi rule for 130 years, which followed a relatively short period of war (about 60 years) between the Mongolian invasion (1274) and the founding of the new shogunate (1336), and so on. War and peace, war and peace.
At this pace Japan will reach its next military era in about 130 years. Until then, politics will become increasingly muddled and the bureaucracy (by some estimates about 98% kugeh) will continue to rule Japan.