The samurai class first took shape in Japan more than 800 years ago, and it captures the imagination still today. Up until at least the seventeenth century, their life and work seems to have been relatively prestigious and well-compensated. By Katsu Kokichi’s day, however, the way of the samurai wasn’t what it used to be. Born in 1802, Katsu lived through the first half of the century in which the samurai as we know it would go extinct, rendered unsupportable by evolving military technology and a changing social order. But reading his autobiography Musui’s Story: The Autobiography of a Tokugawa Samurai, one gets the feeling that he wouldn’t exactly have excelled even in his profession’s heyday.
“From childhood, Katsu was given to mischief,” says the site of the book’s publisher. “He ran away from home, once at thirteen, making his way as a beggar on the great trunk road between Edo and Kyoto, and again at twenty, posing as the emissary of a feudal lord. He eventually married and had children but never obtained official preferment and was forced to supplement a meager stipend by dealing in swords, selling protection to shopkeepers, and generally using his muscle and wits.”
But don’t take it from The University of Arizona Press when you can hear selections of Katsu’s dissolute picaresque of a life retold in his own words — and narrated in English translation — in the animated Voices of the Past video above.
“Unable to distinguish right and wrong, I took my excesses as the behavior of heroes and brave men,” writes a 42-year-old Katsu in a particularly self-flagellating passage. “In everything, I was misguided, and I will never know how much anguish I caused my relatives, parents, wife, and children. Even more reprehensible, I behaved most disloyally to my lord and master the shogun and with uttermost defiance to my superiors. Thus did I finally bring myself to this low estate.” But if was from that inglorious position that Katsu could produce such an entertaining and illuminating set of reflections. He may have been no Miyamoto Musashi, but he left us a more vivid description of everyday life in nineteenth-century Japan than his exalted contemporaries could have managed.
Hand-Colored 1860s Photographs Reveal the Last Days of Samurai Japan
How to Be a Samurai: A 17th Century Code for Life & War
The 17th Century Japanese Samurai Who Sailed to Europe, Met the Pope & Became a Roman Citizen
The History of Ancient Japan: The Story of How Japan Began, Told by Those Who Witnessed It (297-1274)
Hear an Ancient Chinese Historian Describe The Roman Empire (and Other Voices of the Past)
Watch the Oldest Japanese Anime Film, Jun’ichi Kōuchi’s The Dull Sword (1917)
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.