November 27, 2005

Chapter 16 (A Thousand Leagues of Wind)

The climactic scene in the chanbara eiga (samurai action movie) Ronin Gai depicts a "drawing and quartering" almost exactly as described here. (Of course, the good guys arrive just in time.)

During the Tokugawa Era, sumptuary laws were promulgated in the name of moral values, public decorum and respect for the government. But it largely came down to enforcement of the feudal order and was a handy way to check the influence of the growing merchant class. The lowest of the four feudal classes (samurai, farmers, artisans, merchants), the merchants were often the most powerful, due to the profligate borrowing and spending habits of high government officials, who were not above using sumptuary laws as an excuse to default on their debts.

In Japan, an Attempt at Interpretation, written in the late Meiji period, Lafcadio Hearn notes how it is

difficult for the Western mind to understand how human beings could patiently submit to laws that regulated not only the size of one's dwelling and the cost of its furniture, but even the substance and character of clothing[;] not only the expense of a wedding outfit, but the quality of the marriage-feast, and the quality of the vessels in which the food was to be served[;] not only the kind of ornaments to be worn in a woman's hair, but the material of the thongs of her sandals[;] not only the price of presents to be made to friends, but the character and the cost of the cheapest toy to be given to a child.

Sumptuary laws were also an excuse to scrimp on the stipends paid to samurai, who were supposed to lead "austere" lives. As depicted in the movie Twilight Samurai, by the 19th century, the samurai system had become economically unviable. Crippling taxes were required to sustain the samurai class, yet most lower-echelon samurai, forbidden to engage in trade or manual labor, lived in poverty. Along the way, many illegally sold their swords and turned to farming or commerce, or, as in The Seven Samurai, kept their swords and became mercenaries or enforcers for the yakuza.

Ironically, at the same time, merchants often used their wealth to acquire samurai status. Sakamoto Ryouma, one of the founders of modern Japan, came from a family of sake brewers who purchased the rank of "merchant samurai." Not surprisingly, Sakamoto recognized early on the need to end the feudal system of inherited class.

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