Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Musui's Story by Katsu Kokichi

The full title of this book is Musui's Story: The Autobiography of a Tokugawa Samurai. The author, Katsu Kokichi, who was born in 1802 and died in 1850, titled his autobiography Musui dokugen. "Musui," the name Katsu took upon retirement, means "dream-besotted;" "dokugen" means monologue or talking to oneself.

The book, as Teruko Craig, the translator points out in her introduction, is unique—"the autobiography of a samurai who was neither a scholar nor an administrator, and certainly not a model of feudal loyalty." Katsu was of low rank and poorly educated, but, by his account, a skillful swordsman and clearly had street smarts.

As a child, he was a scamp, running away from home twice, the first time when he was fourteen. He had stolen money from the household only to have it, his swords, and kimono stolen during the second or third night on the road leaving him in his underrobe. He lived rough on the road for two months, finally returning home to Edo (present-day Tokyo). Had he remained away much longer, shogunal officials would have taken measures to end the family line, that is reduce them to commoners.

Katsu begins his account with a Prologue that says in effect: I am going to tell you how you shouldn't live--not like me. Although, for some inexplicable reason, I have not been punished by Heaven for all my sins and misdeeds. He concludes, "My past conduct truly fills me with horror. Let my children, their children, and their children's children read this record carefully and savor its meaning. So be it."

Between his prologue and final reflections, Katsu gives a lively account of someone living mostly by his wits, married but a regular habitué of the Yoshiwara tea houses, running a protection racket, lying, cheating, stealing, brawling and scheming. It is a picture of a world that is both alien in its customs and expectations and obligations and familiar from dozens of samurai movies. A lot of fun.

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