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Musui – The Autobiography of Katsu Kokichi: A Summary

Updated on August 29, 2019
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Rhylee Suyom has hopped in three different worlds: the academe, the corporate, and the media. He enjoys being with nature and his family.

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Musui – The Autobiography of Katsu Kokichi: A Summary

Katsu Kokichi is the third son of Otani Heizo a son of a wealthy moneylender adopted into the Otani clan. Not being an eldest son, he was adopted by the Katsu family and given the name Kokichi in order to be the next head of the family. To facilitate his adoption, he was declared to be seventeen despite he was only seven at that time. Under the shogunate law one can only be adopted at the age of seventeen. Therefore, to make him look older the pate of his head had been shaved as a symbol of the coming of age ceremony. He later married Nobuko the only daughter of the family and later became the family’s head. He was not able to finish school because he had not been devoted to studies. But he had been good at horseback riding and martial arts.

Over the years to come the fortune of the Katsu family declined until the family stipend was just 41koku. When his father was still alive, Kokichi sought different work opportunities in the government through the kobushingumi system but after his father died, he gave up on this endeavor. He retired and passed on his headship of the family to his eldest son, Rintaro. He took the name “Musui” meaning “drunk on dreams” and despite being illiterate he struggled to write his autobiography Musui dokugen or “Musui talking to himself” (Wiki-Samurai, 2018).

Life During the Tokugawa Era

His book, autobiography, shows how Tokugawa society is portrayed with all the moralizing tracts and ordinances of the government. It depicts the life of Kokichi who was born in family with the hereditary privilege of an audience with the shogun, but he was shamelessly associated with the riffraff of Edo, got involved in a protection racket, had been cheated, and stolen. It gives a picture of Japanese culture, history and society and how people interact. As he tells about his life, Kokichi gives a general picture of the life of a lower level samurai like him who had survived life interacting with the scruffs on the streets of Edo. He recounted his adventures and escapades as a samurai who had been stealing, getting into brawls, indulging in pleasure quarters and getting better of authorities.

Since childhood Kokichi had already been associated with mischiefs. He ran away from their home and became a beggar on the streets. He also posed as an emissary of a feudal lord. Though he had been adopted into a family of good reputation he was not able to get an official position in government so he had to be satisfy himself with the meager stipend he gets from dealing in swords, selling protection to shopkeepers and using his muscles and wits. His wisdom gives a profound view on loyalty, kindness, greed and deception and vanity and superstitions.

Kokichi has a boisterous, bragging, passionate and pious personality. The cultural creativity and intellectual brilliance of the times has been blended with the vigor of his youth. He had been roaming the streets with his followers and challenges anyone who comes in his way. Being a good swordsman himself, he is self-assured in saying that “I demolish every good-for-nothing in my own neighborhood. . . I feared absolutely no one” (p.60). He traveled with the pilgrims on their way to Ise, he also mingled with thieves, gamblers and beggars. He is famous among the courtesans at Yoshiwara, and it could be said that he had lived his life to the fullest as a youth.

Though he did not finish his studies, he had been a father of Katsu Kaishu, an expert in Military service, a prominent official of the Tokugawa bakufu, and a key participant in the Meiji restoration. He used the lessons of his life in the teaching his children an in-depth perception of the realities of life in the late Tokugawa Japan.

His autobiography also pictures the life of peasants in Japan as he interacted and lived with them. He had portrayed the peasants to be selfish, stingy and greedy. They always think of themselves as good, but they are still the same as the peasants in 7 samurai. He earns his lot by impressing the peasants, making friends in the high places or positions, he uses religion to impress people and exhibit his so-called “powers”, and by threatening them. He punishes those who do not cooperate while he rewards the ones who had been submissive and cooperative. This is how the structure of Tokugawa society looks like. Kokichi was able to expand his social network and justify himself through his claims of knowing the real work and the people in it. And as a samurai it is good to know both ways. Good thing to note about him is that he used his mistakes to teach or warn his children and other people to avoid the things he did and though he took pleasure in doing those things he is not advising other people especially his children to follow his example.

The Samurai and Its Exploits

The samurai is an integral part of the Japanese history and culture. The kobunshi-gumi specifically is a pool of low-ranking samurais during the Edo-period. It is divided into two groups the vorigumi or the samurais entitiled with fiefs and stipends of over 3,000 kokus. And the other group who are even lower in rank. This samurai group is subdivided into eight units; they have the shihai or the commissioner and his assistant or the kumigashira. There are four or five clerks – sewa-tori-atsukai that administer the subunits. Samurai members seek employment and report during meetings at the house of the commissioner likewise submits their requests for marriages, adoptions of heirs, retirements and other matters relevant to their status and family matters. It is the commissioner who makes the recommendations for employment and gives the authorization for marriages, adoptions, and retirements.

The matsuke or the government inspector oversees surveying the skills, finances, personality and qualifications of applicants and confirms their role in the government in case of employment. Once application is received and approved, the candidate is then summoned to the shogun’s palace. But the appearance in the palace requires the applicant to dress in formal outfit and bring certain number of gifts. Not everyone can afford this. In the case of Kikuchi, he tried to apply or seek employment in government while his father was still alive, but with their family’s wealth decreasing he was not able to give the necessary gifts and that caused him to be content with his meager stipend and live an impoverished life. With his skills in sword and martial arts and being a samurai, he survived by selling protection to the shopkeepers and dealing with swords (p.13).

The life story of Kikuchi reflects the feudal society of Japan during the half of the 19th century. With the four-tier social hierarchy of the Japanese military class, the peasants are the next lower in rank to them. The artisan and craftsmen follow, and the commercial class are at the bottom. The structure could have been simpler if there were just the peasants and the military or the elite warriors. People who engaged in trading and those in physical work do not fit in the peasant group though.

The military class is the samurai. They had a legitimate outlet for militarism; they live on paid stipend and taxes paid by the farmers. When a samurai lives beyond their means that is the time, they accumulate so much debts. With the samurai dominating the political structure of Japan the army of the state is also determined by heredity that is why the role of the eldest son is very significant and families without a potential heir adopts. In the Tokugawa society, the shogun is the head of the states and is considered as the military deputy of the emperor.

The power of the samurai waned during the Tokugawa era, since there is already peace the skills of these warriors is not much needed. And so, they have soon transformed into bureaucrats or troublemakers wandering around. Since they are not allowed to carry two swords which is a mark of their status as samurai, the samurai have lost their significance in society and were replaced by the merchants who had continually gained wealth and power. The position in society of the samurai was further threatened by the emerging new class – the chonin or the mobile wealth merchants and artisans. This was the time that the samurai especially those in the lower class need to find other means to survive from their meager stipend. And with only their skills as samurai to back them up, it was no wonder Kikuchi have been drawn to mingle with gamblers and beggars. He had used his position and skills as samurai to sell protection for the wealthy peasants. And sometimes he takes things dishonestly or he steals.

As the samurai struggle with their new role in society, there is also an on-going struggle to keep a stable social order in society. Wealth has shifted in concentration from the previous scenario that it is held by the samurai class now it is held by the emerging wealth peasants. The fixed stipends that are given to the samurai placed them in debts to the wealth merchant families. While the wealth merchant families are prohibited to display their wealth to avoid violating the laws and restricted privileges given to the samurai class. The growing resentment between the classes has created the conflict between the classes too.

The Resentment of Falling from Grace

In his reflection Kikuchi realized that it is important to make something of one’s self in order to gain honor and fame and bring prosperity to the family. He had abused his position as a samurai and engaged in unworthy activities that left him in disgrace. The way he regarded other people as goof-for-nothing, and he takes something from people dishonestly has made other people regard him very lowly. People yield to his request out of fear and not out of courtesy. He fell short in rendering goods deeds and showing respect for others, the amount of trouble he had himself involved in over the years only left him resentful for failing to do more worthy things in his life.

It was upon his retirement that he was able to life a serious thought; he had been reciting the Lotus Sutra in the evening and prays for the success of others. Because of this, he noted that there has been improvement in his health condition. As a result of this change in his lifestyle, no harsh words had been encountered in his family and finally laughter could be heard again. The wisdom he gained from this thought and from his wrong decisions inspired him to write his own book. Becoming a real human being is to strive for true humanity, if one does not pursue learning and military arts with the proper attitude he will still be unfitting and is comparable to a person who did not study at all. What is important is having the proper spirit (Katsu, 1988).

References

Katsu, Kokichi. (1988). Musui. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, Print.

Wiki-Samurai. n.d. 21 November 2018 <https://wiki.samurai-archives.com/index.php?title=Katsu_Kokichi>.

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