Memoirs of a Samurai Gangster

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Musui’s Story–The Autobiography of a Takugawa Samurai by Kokichi Katsu offers an unusual glimpse into a side of historical Japan that is rarely discussed, the seedy underside of life in the romantic Edo period. Instead of being the sort of noble and upright samurai that is usually depicted, the author comes off as a cheerful scoundrel.

Kokichi was born in 1802, the third son of Heizou Otani, a minor government official. As the younger son of a samurai, his best chance for advancement lay in being adopted by a samurai family with no sons. Accordingly at the age of six his father arranged for him to be adopted by the Katsu family, with the understanding that he would eventually marry their daughter Nobuko.

Kokichi’s adoptive parents were already deceased at the time they adopted him. Presumably the adoption and betrothal were arranged by Nobuko’s relatives to ensure the continued legal existence of the family. Accordingly Nobuko and her grandmother moved in with the Otani family after the adoption.

Kokichi describes the grandmother as a harridan who made his and Nobuko’s lives miserable. However she probably had legitimate grounds for scolding. Kokichi grew up to be the sort of young man who neglects his studies and cannot be trusted.

At the age of 14 he ran away from home. He had a series of unfortunate adventures, eventually returning home sick and half-starved. His behavior did not improve much. He spent much of his time brawling and carousing in the Yoshiwara, Edo’s red-light district.

He married Nobuko when he was 17. As the head of the Kutsu family he was entitled to a government stipend of 41 koku of rice per year. This would probably be enough to support a family if one lived frugally, but not nearly enough for the kind of lifestyle to which a young nobleman might feel entitled.

To supplement their incomes most low-level samurai tried to get positions in the military or civil service, but there were far more applicants than available positions. Kokichi, with his trouble-making reputation and lack of scholarly accomplishments, was not a credible candidate.

Instead he earned money by dealing in swords, running a protection racket in the Yoshiwara and stealing anything of value that was not being watched closely. If we can believe his statements this brought in a lot of cash. Nevertheless he was constantly in debt.

At the age of 37, under the threat of dire consequences from his embarrassed relatives, he resigned his position as head of the Katsu family in favor of his son Rintarou. In retirement he became a Buddhist monk and took the name Musui. This does not seem to have improved his character much.

To me one of the most interesting characters is one who is barely mentioned except in one extended passage: his wife Nobuko. She seems to have been a woman of strong traditional values who found life with him very trying. Here is what he has to say about her:

…I became hopelessly smitten with a certain woman. In desperation I told my wife about it.

“Leave everything to me,” she said. “I’ll get her for you.”

“Oh, would you–”

“But first you must give me some time off.”

“Whatever for?”

“I intend to go to the woman’s house and persuade her family one way or another to give her to you. You say they’re samurai too, so they could very well try to put me off. Don’t worry, I’ll get her for you even if I have to kill myself.”

I handed my wife a dagger.

She said, “I’ll go tonight and bring her back without fail.”

I took off for the day looking for something to do, and ran into Nanpei Tonomura. As we stood chatting he said to me, “Katsu-san, I’ll bet you’re prone to woman trouble. I can tell by the features on your face. Can you think of any particular problem of that nature?”

I told him of the conversation I’d had with my wife earlier.

“How very commendable of her,” he said, and went on his way.

I decided to drop by to see my friend Sanuki Sekikawa, a fortune teller. He took one look at me and said, “Something dreadful’s about to happen. Come in and we’ll talk about it.” Inside, Sanuki went on to say that he could see right away that I was having woman trouble. “And this very night I foresee trouble over a sword. A lot of people may be hurt. Tell me, can you think of anything along those lines?”

I told him about my infatuation with a woman and my wife’s determination to get her for me. He was speechless at first but then started to give me counsel, saying how fortunate I was to have such a devoted wife and how I should take better care of her in the future.

I thought about it for a moment. He was right. I was clearly in the wrong. I flew home.

My wife was just about to leave–she had sent her grandmother with our baby daughter to Hikoshirou’s in Kamezawa-chou and had finished writing me a note. It took a lot of talking to convince her to give up the idea but the incident ended without mishap. It wasn’t the first time she got me out of trouble.

After that I tried to be more gentle and considerate to my wife. Until then not a day had passed without me hitting her for one reason or another.

The only way I can make sense out of this story is to assume that Nobuko was feeling depressed and suicidal. It would not be socially acceptable for her to kill herself merely because her husband beat her and spent most of his income partying in the Yoshiwara. To do so would disgrace both herself and her children.

On the other hand it would be honorable for a woman of the samurai caste to kill herself because she had failed to carry out a mission for her husband. (We can probably take it for granted that a samurai family would not agree to give away their daughter to be the concubine of a man of Kokichi’s reputation.)

Nobuko was probably a good mother since her children turned out well, which can hardly be attributed to Kokichi’s influence. Kokichi repeatedly praises his children for their filial piety and willingness to support him in a comfortable retirement. His son, known to history as Kaishuu Katsu, went on to a distinguished career as a naval officer and diplomat.