The myth of the samurai

I've seen many references to Harold Bolitho's (apparently!) seminal paper The Myth of the Samurai over the years, and last week I realized that some kind soul had posted it online.

The samurai of the early period, therefore, would not seem to accord too well with the popular stereotype. Most of them were not really professionals: their code of ethics was, to say the least, elastic; they were probably as interested in survival as anybody else; and they were certainly — to judge from their obsession with land and taxes — not indifferent to this world's goods.

I don't suppose any of this is news to anyone reading this, but this essay was written in 1984, at the height of hysteria about the Japanese taking over the world economy with their ancient samurai work ethic. It's like the "Paid in Full" of things that interest me.

From the obituary linked above:

Known for his distinctive essays on cultural history, on topics ranging from travel and sumo wrestling to reincarnation, he had an unusual ability to carry a reader forward through the interest of the story being told, with the punch-line of an argument deferred. In his study of a case of metempsychosis (the transmigration of a soul), where a young boy in the early nineteenth century apparently backed up his claim to know the details of his previous life by supplying information only that previous soul could have known, Bolitho told the remarkable tale with zest and amusement; only toward the end did he bring forward the argument he wished to make about the world view of a famous scholar in the national studies school, Hirata Atsutane.

Sō iu mono ni/ watashi wa naritai.

Popularity factor: 3


When I reach actual professorhood and get to reorganize our Japanese Studies curriculum (assuming there are still humanities in ~2050), this one will be required reading by the first term, together with Yamada Shōji's "The Myth of Zen in the Art of Archery" and Shirane's "Beyond the Haiku Moment: Basho, Buson and Modern Haiku myths" (with their book-length counterparts as recommended literature). And for tea students, Surak's "Making Tea, Making Japan".


Sounds like you'll be teaching Japanese Mythology.


That’s… totally right, actually, though not the way we usually use the word. But this mythology (cultural reception?) is both fascinating, and important; it tells us a lot about culture, in a distorted-mirror kind of way – it's not as if samurai had no ideals, martial arts no Zen, or haiku no "moments"; the "myths" are only guilty of exaggerating a single aspect, at the cost of completely ignoring all the other stuff (say, samurai ambition and material culture, Confucianism in martial arts, or the importance of literary references in haiku).

And the myths are, after all, cool (they draw people to this area (I was drawn by them!)); but they quickly get old, and then there's a special, cynical, oneupmanshippy pleasure in debunking misunderstandings, and then a third pleasure in learning to appreciate them back in context.

Comment season is closed.