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  • Writer's pictureJohn Lombard

Per My Last Attack On Your Castle

Of course, we bow to the samurai.

Leave the road. Touch the ground with your forehead. Don’t look in their eyes. Wait for them to pass.

This is the system of our benevolent shogun, Lord Tokugawa, and the Lord Tokugawas who ruled before him. Warrior, farmer, craftsman, merchant. Each group plays their role, but the martial samurai rule, and we commoners humble ourselves in respect of their might and valour.

If we plebeians fail to display proper deference, say with a rude word or an injudicious shove, the samurai are permitted to cut us down. Left hand on the sheath, flash of steel with the right. And then your head tumbles onto the ground, mouth gulping for air but tasting only dirt. Just like that.

It doesn’t happen very often, though. You see, if a samurai performs what they deem a disrespect killing, they must report it to their lord, and their lord might not be grateful for the unilateral disturbance of the peace. Their lord must also report to the shogun, who will dispatch crafty investigators to interview any witnesses, and check that protocol was followed. For example, a disrespect killing can only be done immediately, so there is no indulgence for a murderous samurai pounding on your gate a week after an insult.

Months of meetings, paperwork, reports and costs, all because some drunk sandal weaver did not give way to a samurai clomping down the road to Edo. While all that is going on, the samurai is usually confined at home, to nudge them into chastening self-reflection. When the bureaucracy’s churn is finally exhausted, the samurai could easily find themselves stripped of their stipend, or asked to apologise by opening their belly with a sword. It is ever the wisdom of Lord Tokugawa, to keep the peace by punishing both criminal and victim.

Much cheaper for everyone concerned, if we merchants just bow to the samurai.

We even bow when a samurai is begging for a loan, as they so often must. Most of their stipends are thin, especially for the lower samurai, who live on rice and vegetables, with the lucky ones able to splurge once a week on a little fish. The pawnshops are cluttered with priceless heirloom swords, and destitute samurai must take on odd jobs, like appraising weapons or carving toothpicks. I have even heard of one desperate samurai who sold his horse, but chopped off the tail first, to weave the hair into fishing tackles. On top of that, these days the lords feel the pinch of straitened circumstances too and are not above asking their own loans of retainers, never to be repaid. To soothe their warrior pride we merchants bow deep, and pamper the samurai with abject excuses and apologies. Then we set interest at 15%.

Let us sneak a glance at the procession passing now.

This lord is on his way to Edo, for his mandatory year of residence in the city of the shogun. A lord in charge of a province must spend every second year in Edo, for the shogun to personally observe their loyalty. One of a lord’s prerogatives is that they are one of the select who may journey in a palanquin, and theirs is hefted by four servants. The bamboo screen on the side of this transport is rolled up, for relaxed viewing of the rolling seas that skirt the long road from Kyoto. Perhaps they are thinking of the reunion soon with their wives and children, who must reside in Edo while the lord is in his province.

Of course, a lord cannot make this trip alone, but must have hundreds of their samurai march with them, per the shogun’s law. This means rows of cavalry, archers and spear carriers in formation before and after their lord’s palanquin. For most of these samurai, this is the only occasion they are permitted to leave their province, and their great chance to show off fine horses that will never charge into battle, and sharp weapons that will never scratch an enemy. As an extra special treat, they will even get an allowance for participation in this excursion, something to send home to their mothers or fritter in Edo’s exquisite pleasure quarters.

250 such lords across Japan, and half of them must make this elaborate journey each year, on penalty of confiscation of their province. I see so many bellies, each a fist of rice per day. Bodies for fine clothes and sturdy footwear. Hands for fearsome weapons. Idle minds for the theatres. And to receive this migration, lavish households and sober barracks, with their builders and servants and chefs and gardeners. So much business for humble Edo! For a merchant, it is hard to watch this parade, and not see livestock herding themselves into the pen.

The crushing outlay for these troop movements give the samurai a glimmer of prestige, but empty the lords’ treasuries, buying the shogun and the nation peace with the poverty of its warriors. All praise to the Tokugawa clan, for forcing the samurai to subsist on fixed allowances of rice, and giving merchants both monopoly of trade and 200 years of peace to forge our gilded age. And all the samurai ask in return is the occasional polite bow - a fair deal!

Let us compare that spectacle to my modest convoy.

I am Takeyasu, a merchant. As a commoner, I am not permitted a surname, but I am known in business as Takeyasu of Mimasaka, after my home province. I deal a little in lobsters, a little in cedar, a little in decorative handguards for swords, a little in exciting novels.

I am not poor, by any means. I have managed my business in the reliable fashion of my merchant fathers, and when I am prepared to take a Buddhist name and retreat from public life, my business with its full warehouses shall pass to my son.

I do not travel with an army, but only one servant, to carry my baggage and attend to my needs. I am not allowed a palanquin for this trip like the lords, but no matter, for the road is easy walking, the mountains are beautiful, and the inns are cosy. With permit in hand I can travel as I please across this beautiful country, smiled on by foxes and guardian statues alike, while the samurai are ever prisoners of their castle towns.

This highway is busy and safe, so there is no need for a guard. I have few coins on me to tempt bandits, but my merchandise for this trip is priceless, and it wends its way to Edo ahead of me by ship.

Such is the merchant’s free and fulfilling life - given a choice, who would be a samurai? I hear that in a few provinces now, a commoner with money can buy a low samurai rank - but to forfeit wealth, freedom and pleasure for a measly stipend of rice and a dusty code of sacrifice? To do so would scorn the generosity of Ebisu, the God of luck and merchants. Let the samurai waggle their swords - these days, they are more likely to use them on themselves, before anyone else.

If there is a single advantage the samurai have, it is time. I can’t remember a New Year’s Eve where I could be home slurping noodles with my wife, let alone meditating on the ringing of the bell at a shrine. There is always one more debt to collect, or one more margin to negotiate. Most of these samurai marching to Edo will work for a few hours every third day, if that. One person to write an order, a second to stamp it, and a third to hand it to a runner. A morning’s work. For the afternoon, practice mounting a horse in a swimming pool, just in case the Mongols have been lost at sea for 600 years. No wars for these samurai to fight, not enough jobs in the government to occupy their time usefully, and not even enough money for most of them to enjoy the brothels.

But Mt Fuji’s snowy peak is now visible, the road from Kyoto to Edo has ended, and we have reached the canal bridge that bends into the merchant’s district, with its wholesalers and warehouses.

My first duty is to check whether my cargo has arrived. I visit my warehouse, and my clerks confirm that it has been received. I give the item a personal inspection, for it is truly a magnificent contrivance.

Every Edoite knows the Dutch, gawky reeds with straw hair and fishscale eyes. They are the only Westerners permitted within Japan, and take our silver and porcelain in payment for silk and books of foreign learning. The shogun controls their only port, for their goods command lordly prices, but as a merchant I am satisfied just to fill their cargo holds when they depart.

Yet there are other nations beyond the Dutch, and their eyes lust after China, a country with wealth as endless as its history. Only a few years ago, one of these nations, the British, had an ill-fated embassy with the Qianlong Emperor, petitioning for expanded trade to relieve their people’s ruinous thirst for tea. Heedless of the privilege that is an audience with the Emperor, the delegation almost scuppered their opportunity by refusing to kowtow. Yet the Emperor was gracious, and allowed them to kneel instead, and seated them in place of honour next to him at a welcoming banquet. Such is the graciousness of civilisation, even before hectoring barbarians.

The British gave what tribute they could to the Emperor, including fine cannons and guns. Of course, our countries have had these for hundreds of years, so they did not make the impression the British hoped for. The Qianlong Emperor declined further trade, rightly stating that his country has all things, or at least all things of true value to a righteous society. No doubt the British’s insolence contributed to their abrupt dismissal.

But there was one gift that was not unpacked, too unwieldy to make a land trip to the court, and left behind in Beijing. If only the British ambassador had shown better manners, the Emperor might have given them more opportunity to make their case, and the gift might have been seen by Qianlong’s court, where the scholars would surely have known its value.

Instead it found its way to sea, to pirates, to my agents, and to me. And tomorrow, I will meet with the shogun’s officers, to discuss an opportunity.

Before then, I have a little time for pleasure. I stroll the streets, and between the stalls and shopfronts see a puppet show. The 47 Ronin - a supposed tale of samurai honour, where disciplined retainers wait in secret for more than a year to avenge themselves against the man they blame for their lord’s death sentence.

Strictly speaking, that is not the way samurai are supposed to behave - the true samurai spirit is to attack immediately, or so I always hear them say. And this condemned lord behaved shamefully, drawing a sword in the shogun’s palace. Yet to justify samurai bravado, we hear of these 47 masterless wanderers, mostly of the lowest ranks, and not the 250 other former retainers who wisely abstained from pack murder of a doddering old man.

The worst of it is, the man the retainers killed was an excellent official. I have been to his province, Mikawa, and you can see the prosperity his stewardship created in the lattice of irrigation channels for rice and flourishing salt trade. Yet in this hoary tale he is a crafty schemer, one who has forsaken honest violence for dastardly bureaucracy, the plain-speaking sword for the slippery inkbrush, who might threaten in a letter, “per my last attack on your castle…”

Tired of the show, I find a strolling book dealer, and buy the latest novel by Bakin to read before bed.

I stay in a chamber at my warehouse, for there is no sense wasting money on an inn. Alone, I allow myself my indulgence. We merchants are expected to dress plainly, to reflect our position at the bottom of the social order, barely above the classless outcasts like butchers and actors. But merchants like myself who have been successful in trade can afford finery better than most samurai, and in private we dress as we like. As I leaf through the novel by candlelight, I sometimes pause to stroke my kimono - silk, yellow, decorated with embroidery of playful tanuki, and worth more than most samurai receive in a year. Appropriate attire for my true place in society, as one of its secret rulers.

Morning arrives soon, and I dress for my audience with the shogun’s representatives. These samurai, direct retainers of the shogun, manage his extensive property, including his personal land and ports. I bow, of course. Tea is served. We discuss past dealings, beneficial to both parties. And I take them into the warehouse.

It really is a magnificent contrivance - as I explain to them, you burn coal, which heats water to make steam, and the steam works a pump. Imagine the uses - not just in our gold mines, but in weaving cloth, shaping metals! Or harness this to our ships! What an opportunity for our country! Profit and power!

Their response is not what I expect. The shogun’s representatives tell me that I have violated the shogun’s monopoly on foreign trade, and this warehouse is to be sealed, and all goods confiscated and destroyed. I am instructed to know my place, and not meddle in the affairs of samurai. I am informed that the shogun will inform me of any further penalty in due course.

Samurai? They may wear swords on their hips, but these men are more conscious of protecting their stipends than serving their country.

And so I leave Edo, my mind turning with mockery of these buffoons, and of a class that thinks firing a bow equips you for managing a town, or throwing darts is the right education for negotiating with other countries! What do the samurai see of this country other than other samurai? One of them tries to improve the lives of ordinary people, and 47 vagabond ruffians burst into his home, slice off his head, and then parade it down the street as a trophy! Why should the future of this country be entrusted to the idle, imbecile children of warriors who won a battle hundreds of years ago? The merchants are the true power in this country!

My bitter reverie is interrupted when I collide with someone on the road. I look up, and see it is a scruffy lordless samurai. He scowls at me with that fierce glare the samurai love to wear, that hungry pride from consciousness of their own stolid uselessness.

In a rage, I growl at him to get off the road, and find a gutter to die in!

His right hand clasps his sheath.

And then

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