Friday, April 04, 2008

When Eastern knighthood was in flower

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, biographies, japan

In downtown Tokyo, not far from the Emperor's palace, surrounded by office buildings, sits a little shrine, the Kubizuka. Few foreigners visit. It is a business area, with few nearby shops. As real estate, it may be worth millions. It is scrupulously cared for, because it is believed to house a vengeful spirit. It is the grave of "the most famous samurai you've never heard of" in the words of Karl Friday.

In The First Samurai: The Life and Legend of the Warrior Rebel Taira Masakado Dr. Friday presents to us a Japanese warrior whose local reputation is scarcely different from that of Lancelot among Westerners, and who has the benefit of being an actual historical figure. Yet, as is common for ancient heroes and villains, the legend has far outgrown the person, so that the mythical Taira-no-Masakado is no more real than is Lancelot.

Just so you know, Japanese names are presented surname first, so Taira is the family name. There were six clans named Taira; the clan of which Masakado was a part descended from Emperor Kammu. Emperors "de-noble-ized" excess descendants by giving them a surname, thus thrusting them out of the line of succession. Japanese emperors have no surname. (Akihito is the only name of the present Emperor; Heisei is the name he chose for the era of his administration, just has his father Hirohito chose Showa for the 52-year period which he oversaw. Regnal years begin with the naming of the era; 1989 was 1 Heisei, and this is 20 Heisei already.)

Masakado, born around 900 AD, was in the fifth generation from Kashiwabara, or Emperor Kammu. He was a hereditary aristocrat, and a powerful figure, though he had not succeeded in gaining much favor in the court at Kyoto. This is not explained in the histories, simply that his time attending the imperial court was unfruitful. Later events indicate he was probably a bit too honest and frank to make a good politician.

He was a warrior, a leader of warriors. Samurai were mercenaries, self-trained and self-supporting. No poor man could afford to become one. They fought on horseback, primarily as archers. The sword or swords they carried were for hand combat should it occur, or for removing the head of an already slain enemy. The times being what they were, both in West and East, an average knight or samurai of the Tenth Century seldom passed half a year without committing a killing or two.

What made Masakado famous was an almost accidental insurrection. He was forced into a life of warfare by the enmity of two uncles. No fighting man is without enemies, and all too often they are near relatives. Masakado was a superior tactician and strategist, so he won, time and again, over a five-year span. However, once it went to his head he overreached, taking over eight provinces to the east of Kyoto, in the area that later became Tokyo and its environs.

He didn't start out to take over anything, but when he rode into old Hitachi province with a large band of warriors, intending to settle a quarrel for another, he took on a bit too much, and had to either conquer the province or be driven off in defeat. That'll get you every time: getting into someone else's fight. This act made him an outlaw.

Calculating it better to make a strong showing in hopes of negotiation his way out of outlaw status, he took over seven more provinces. However, the Kyoto court was in an extra-paranoid condition, being in the midst of a pirate insurrection led by one Fujiwara Sumitomo, to the West of Kyoto. Feeling pinched, and having no sense of humor, the government issued warrants of arrest against Masakado to three of his bitterest enemies. The rest is a spiral of tragedy that led in 940 to a parade led by a rider with Masakado's head on a pike.

Legend has it that the head of Masakado hung on a tree near the city for three months, complaining of being removed from its body, until a passing man rebuked it, pointing out why it was there. It fell silent, and soon flew off to find its body. Various accounts converge on the burial of the head near Masakado's eastern home, and to erection of a large plaque to mark the Kubizuka, "tomb of the head." A marked proclivity for people to die on or near this spot, for a thousand-year span, led people to the present stance of taking excellent care of the monument, replacing the inscription as it became worn or broken and frequently placing new flowers and offerings upon it.

Masakado is the sort of enigmatic figure who is famous not so much for what he did, but for what he represented. As Dr. Friday writes, "The warriors of medieval Japan embraced Masakado as one of their own, the first samurai to rear up and challenge the court-centered polity." Reformers who succeed become the next government. Those who fail become rebels, in the eyes of history. Reforms perhaps intended by Masakado came hundreds of years later, once his legend grew to inspire Japanese warriors with a vision greater than themselves.

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