The way of the samurai

From the battle of Sekigahara to rice paddies, video games, MySpace and YouTube, this 16th century warrior will live on forever.

By Andrew Leonard

Published June 25, 2008 5:56PM (EDT)

It's early summer in Japan, which means rice is growing tall, which means -- more incredible rice paddy art! Last year, the farmers of Inakadate pulled off an extraordinary rendition of Hokusai's "The Great Wave of Kanagawa." This year, one of the featured living masterpieces is a portrait of the late 16th century samurai warrior Naoe Kanetsugu.

Perhaps you are unfamiliar with the exploits of Naoe Kanetsugu. While I have dabbled in Japanese history from time to time, with a particular focus on that extraordinary period at the end of the 16th century and beginning of the 17th when daimyo feudal lords fought a series of terrific battles for ultimate supremacy over all Japan, culminating in the establishment of the Tokugawa Shogunate by Tokugawa Ieyasu, Kanetsugu's name did not ring a gong. But if the man was important enough to be memorialized in a rice paddy 400 years after his death, my ignorance clearly required rectification.

Kanetsugu was a successful military leader who served as chief councilor to Uesugi Kagekatsu, the daimyo of one of the major clans of the period. In 1600, the Uesugi clan was feverishly building up its defenses in preparation for a showdown with Ieyasu. Ieyasu became suspicious at all the military hustle and bustle and sent a messenger to Uesugi Kenshin demanding an explanation.

Kanetsugu replied: "While citified samurai busily collect tea implements, country samurai gather arms for war."

That has to go down as one of the great samurai disses of all time, and I look forward to an opportunity to employ some variation thereof at a cocktail party or other social gathering in the near future: "While North Berkeley hill-dwelling climate change activists drive Priuses to conserve fuel, in the southern flatlands, we are gathering used cooking grease to brew our own ecologically sustainable biodiesel." So there! Bring it on.

But Kanetsugu was no punk. In "The Life of Toyotomi Hideyoshi," Walter and M.E. Dening recount an anecdote in which Hideyoshi -- another powerful daimyo whose own, albeit temporary, unification of Japan paved the way for Ieyasu's shogunate -- decides to visit Uesugi Kagekatsu in person, accompanied by just a few retainers.

On receipt of the news, Kagekatsu called a council to discuss what was best to do under the circumstances. The majority of the councilors advised the assassination of Hideyoshi; arguing that this was by far the simplest way of ridding themselves of a dangerous enemy. But the highly renowned Naoe Kanetsugu condemned this advice as unworthy of a man holding the position of Kagekatsu. "Hideyoshi's coming among us unguarded," said Kanetsugu, "is a proof of his profound respect for our master. With lesser personages Hideyoshi would not so expose himself to danger. Knowing that our lord is a man of noble disposition, he trusts himself among us. Were we take advantage of this and slay him, the story of our baseness and treachery would be handed down to distant posterity to our eternal shame. No: let our master meet magnanimity with magnanimity; let him have an audience with Hideyoshi and let them see whether they cannot come to an understanding. If they cannot agree, then we will fight, but not till Hideyoshi has been sent back to his own country."

Kanetsugu had absolutely no conception of how distant posterity would revere his memory. Today, Kanetsugu is a popular character in the video game "Samurai Warriors 2." (It is one of the extreme oddities of the Internet information eco-system that googling Naoe Kanetsugu's name results in far more search results that instruct you on how to unlock his game character than that educate you about who he actually was.) You can also download Kanetsugu wallpaper into your cellphone, or employ his image as a backdrop for your MySpace page, or watch snippets of his game character in action on YouTube. He even appears to have his own Friendster page, and you can purchase an exquisite handmade figurine of the warrior here. Kanetsugu is also the subject of a best-selling novel in Japan, "Tenchijin," by Hisaka Masashi, soon to be made into a 47-part television extravaganza. (Perhaps there is some clever cross-marketing at play in the rice paddies?)

I don't know whether it helped or hurt Kanetsugu's reputation that, despite his bluster about "citified samurai," he and the Uesugi clan were on the losing side at the epic battle of Sekigahara in which Ieyasu solidified his domination of Japan. He ended up retiring to a fief in Yonezawa, where he made one more lasting contribution to Japanese history -- authoring a code of behavior for his vassals known as "Orders for Peasants."

3. During the twelfth month, if there is a notification from the fief holder or magistrate about a tax overdue, quickly make the payment. For this favor he renders you, send a bowl of loach fish soup accompanied by a dish of fried sardines. Although, according to the regulations, all that is expected of a farmer on such an occasion is a bowl of soup and a dish of vegetables, the ones [just suggested] are more appropriate. If no tax is paid after the due notice, you can have your precious wife taken away from you as security. Do not forget that in your master's house there are many young minor officials and middlemen who may steal your wife. To make sure that kind of thing never happens to you, pay all your taxes before the end of the eleventh month. Take heed that this advice is adhered to. You are known as a man of lowly origin. But even so, you do not wish to see your precious wife exposed to wild winds (misfortunes), being taken away from you, and stolen by younger men. In this fashion you may lose the support of the way of heaven, come to the end of the rope, be scorned by your lowly peer groups, and regret the incident forever. Always remember that such a misfortune can befall you.

One is tempted to wonder whether any of the male ancestors of the farmers so carefully nurturing rice paddies into representations of the great samurai warriors of centuries past had their wives stolen from them by their feudal overlords in punishment for not paying taxes on time or providing the appropriate donation of fried sardines. But I guess if they want some revenge, they can just boot up "Samurai Warriors 2" and lop Kanetsugu's head off to their heart's content. Truly, we live in an age of empowerment.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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