Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Samurai Economy

I'm just a layman when it comes to the art of samurai. I've read a few books — Book of Five Rings, Musashi, Art of War, The Unfettered Mind — and even took a class in stage samurai called Tate where we learned the earth, tiger and dragon katas. Very recently, I learned there were two ancestors of mine who were "adopted" by the Tokunaga family and trained as samurai. Not that this means something, but being Japanese, for many, means figuring out where your family was in the feudal class structure. If one of them was a samurai, you rock!

I happened to view this awesome film by Takeshi Fukunaga on one of the last living master swordmakers in Japan, Korehira Watanabe, and it reminds me of why I value those who are able to reach a mastery of any given subject. Japanese craftsmen take it to a different level, of course, by mastering one craft throughout their lifetime, and then handing that tradition to someone else who will hand it someone else.

I love that stuff. And I think many people do, even those of us who are so far removed from the Japanese culture, myself included.

Back in the feudal era of Japan, there was a samurai economy. Samurai collected a certain stipend from their lord's estate, often in the form of rice, barley or some other valued commodity. They, in turn, could use their salary to cultivate the many things that would suit a samurai: geisha, tea ceremonies, sharpening their swords, chats with zen monks, studying the art of war, calligraphy, ikebana, landscaping, sculpturing, painting, etc.

There's a passage in Unfettered Mind that goes against popular Western thinking, particularly in self-help books. While most self-help books say that anyone can do anything, Unfettered Mind says that it takes so much effort and discipline to become a samurai, most people will never achieve this super status. Or, more pointedly, of all the things it takes to become a samurai, mostly likely you do not possess it.

This sort of thinking is perhaps the essence of the Japanese craftsmen. They continue to hone their skills, never satisfied with their last achievement. Those who could afford it would patronize these master craftsmen, who would in turn patronize other master craftspeople. When you were in that downstream of wealth, you were in the samurai economy. And the very bottom of that stream would, I suppose, be the peasants.

I'm not really sure why I wrote this entry, other than the idea that the video above sparked an old flicker I use to have when it came to doing things. That is, doing things the right way, or not doing them at all. But if you committed to doing it, you committed to doing it for a lifetime.

Earlier on my way to work today, I made a little prayer asking why it is that I no longer have the burning desire to accomplish something beyond myself right now. Not in acting, writing or anything else. It's probably because my ideology has changed, that's for certain, but there must be something else to it. I hope to figure it out soon enough — both what I'd like to accomplish and why I don't have this feeling anymore.

Miyamoto Musashi, in Book of Five Rings, said that once you master one thing, you master all things. He certainly was a living example of this, as he was a gifted sculptor, painter, philosopher, and landscaper in addition to being a master samurai. I've studied a lot of things, but I sure haven't mastered any of them. Perhaps it's time to focus on one of them.


Anonymous said...

Hey buddy, my Grandfather's last name was Tokunaga. I wonder if they are the same.

I'm a hapa.

LT Goto said...

Hey William,

Your ojiisan is probably from the same prefecture, but it is possible to be from the same family or bloodline.

I once went to Yokohama to pay a visit to my mom's old schoolmate. Took hours to find the house, because everyone in her neighborhood had the same last name. Some were even related but they never talked to each other.

Last names apparently were used to indicate what area you were from, but not necessarily what bloodline. You have to do your family tree for that kind of info.

Incidentally, my last name, Goto, is as common in Japan as Smith is here.