Musui's Story as a Historic Source

Updated on February 8, 2018
A Japanese samurai, presumably looking similar to Kokichi.
A Japanese samurai, presumably looking similar to Kokichi.

Katsu Kokichi lives in the last century of the Tokugawa dynasty, being born in 1802 and dying in 1850. The story of his life as written in the autobiography Musui’s Story (translated by Teruko Craig) portrays a waywards, mischievous, and misfit samurai. Despite being a samurai who fits none of the roles or the official state-sanctioned ideology of Tokugawa Japan, Kokichi is an excellent example of the surprising resilience and strength of the Tokugawa social system. His wayward behavior is ultimately constrained, and the escapades of his youth never seriously undermine the Shogunate’s system, even if they do go against samurai decorum. Given the dangers represented by young, idle, militarily-trained men in other systems, Kokichi’s antics seem to bring little effect upon the greater state. It demonstrates that although samurai and warriors in Tokugawa society were often contemptuous of the state-sanctioned morality, they were ultimately kept in check and the system survived their mild inconveniences. This unusual man provides an excellent window into how life was on the margins of respectable Japanese society.

Why do we know so much about Kokichi? Why did he decide to write an autobiography of himself? Kokichi explicitly avoids taking formal overt pride in his life, warning that one should not follow in his footsteps. He castigates much of his life, but the book can hardly be an exercise in showing the folly of his ways (even if he warns that they did contain folly) given that he also states that he has come out of the experience remarkably well at the ripe old age of forty-two. No, despite it all Kokichi writes out of a sense of pride in his achievements, at having done so much in his life that didn’t accord with the official line. In a way, it is this very tone and style which matches his life as a whole - - he is willing to allow just enough repentance and conformance to match official expectations, be it with his preface or conclusion, or with his seeming willingness to accept his imprisonment in a cage for 3 years, but combines this with a continual determination to flout its conventions. Both the framework of his story and the structure of his society bend under such an assault, but they do not break.

Tokugawa Edo, where
Tokugawa Edo, where

This story opens with a preface which shows interest to appealing to the world at large - - he might address it to his children and grandchildren, but the writing is universalist, and the prologue clashes too much with the text to make the moral message it proclaims plausible. Instead, Kokichi’s objective is to justify himself to the world, to write for an audience of Japan as a whole and to explain his actions and his life. What the effects of this were upon his writing of the story, we can only ponder, but beyond the normal effort in an autobiography to reflect well on oneself, it also explains why the author is very eager to demonstrate that he is truly remorseful for the mistakes of his youth, and why he carefully emphasizes his remorse and understanding for penalties applied against him. That such a fiery and oft-unrepentant soul would accept so passively the punishment of being locked away in a cage the size of 3 tatami mats - - 54 square feet, or barely 7x7 feet - - is amazing, especially when he showed that he could remove bars from it and hence escape.

While Kokichi’s story seems to be truthful, it would seem likely that it had extensive selective memory of what his thoughts and feelings were at the time of the portrayed events. The situation from which he writes, under effective house arrest, would bear mentioning extensive parallels to this cage punishment, and his preface, conclusion, and cage scenes are the only times within the book where he ever truly expresses remorse for his erring ways. Perhaps, just like with the cage, Kokichi is not nearly as pleased with his house arrest as he makes his pretense, and this book is an attempt to strike back just as he had done in the rest of his life and break free of an otherwise domineering and constraining system. The combination of these distortions still leaves it as a reliable historical source - after all, Kokichi has little reason to lie about most of the details of quotidien life in Japan - but the reflections upon his life, preamble, and his supposed chagrin in scenes like that of the cage, are all ones that should be taken with skepticism.

The (theoretical) shogunate social structure : in reality it was substantially more flexible.
The (theoretical) shogunate social structure : in reality it was substantially more flexible.

The question remains then how this story completes itself in its transmission to the present, although we know that was published in the historical journal Kyu bakufu in 1900. What passed between the book’s writing in the 1840s and its publication in this journal in 1900, is never explained, and is hard to determine. Did it simply sit stored in an attic, or was it given to children, or locked away in a diary or a government bureau? Its publication places it a generation after the fall of the Shogunate, enough to make the events of fifty years earlier rendered into the historical memory. Their reasons never bear explanation, but would seem likely to be the same ones as those which we garner today in looking at the piece - - exploring the contours of daily life in Japan among an unusual outcast figure who made a mockery of many of the standard social traditions. It gives the historian and the reader a way to examine mentalities, attitudes towards religion, attitudes towards children, hierarchy, gender, official and counter-official discourses and thought, and education in Tokugawa shogunate Japan. And, of course, because it was simply an unusual and interesting story is what seems to have led to its translation into English. For all of this, both the limitations of Kokichi’s unusual position in society, and his post hoc attempts to ensure that his actions would be somewhat acceptable to public discourse (filial piety being something which seems poorly aligned with him yet which he often emphasizes), mean that we see a man who mixes a curiously unrepentant dialogue with a Confucian moralizing critique.

If, indeed, Kokichi felt little repentance for his actions and throughout his life he had flirted the boundaries of the Tokugawa system, then why can he be regarded as a sign of the enduring strength of the Tokugawa shogunate? Musui’s story shows that the state was still capable of enforcing its moral order in official discourses, so that even if Kokichi lived a life which didn’t obey the precepts of polite society, he had to follow its discourse at key points of his work. He shows that there was fundamentally still a great deal of flexibility at the bottom of the structure, as well as enough economic slack for the resourceful to continue to profit. Tokugawa society had grown fractures and cracks, but it wasn’t enough for there to be a confluence of men like Kokichi with dissatisfied elites so as that the system would seriously start to be challenged. The villages still have enough money to respond to demands, even rather unusual ones like the request for 550 ryos, and although they can be rowdy and uncooperative, they are brought into heel in time. Throughout the book, there are never any police, but society continues to self-police. And there is never any demonstration of disloyalty to the system or dissatisfaction among the Samurai. While we see what is a relatively privileged caste, Kokichi only deigning to show us conversation between him and those of the same rank, it shows that the Tokugawa shogunate was still on firm footing.

A Kabuki theater : it would be found in the pleasure districts where Musui passed much of his time.
A Kabuki theater : it would be found in the pleasure districts where Musui passed much of his time.

Using Kokichi as a social indicator could be problematic considering that Kokichi is, after all, an extremely atypical fellow. But it is not unreasonable to take some elements of his character as clues for social attitudes in Japan. One concerns the evolution of women’s position in society. By the time of Kokichi, it seems that the spheres of men and women have been tightly segregated among the Samurai, and Kokichi seems to take little interest in women beyond prostitutes. He notes that he moved in with his first wife when he was eighteen, but when he is twenty-one and penniless, he runs away, having never mentioned her name. Similarly, hard-headed Kokichi (except for that spot where his father hit him with the wooden shoe), who would seemingly be quite used to any manner of indecent activity, was still driven away by the moral impropriety of the sexual promiscuity committed by the widow of Amano Sakyo upon whom’s property he was constructing a house. Women themselves rarely or never communicate in the story (they are never named), and at most are commented upon favorably or disfavorably (the latter for cases of sexual promiscuity), or simply exist, such as when he visits prostitutes.

If women make little appearance in Kokichi’s story, other marginalized groups appear more often. There are common run ins with beggars,which is typical given that Kokichi himself was one for a while during the period of his initial run-away. While formalized state aid seems to be entirely absent as compared to simultaneous European efforts to enclose and confine beggars and vagabonds, the life of beggars and vagabonds is one which seems free and without the same degree of censure as present elsewhere. This is seen in the relatively accepting attitude towards beggars displayed by the innkeeper at Odawara, or the town magistre. Such animosity is not entirely absent of course, as demonstrated by a village guard attacking the extremely ill Kokichi, but beggars are seen more as religious wanderers than as vagabonds to be sneered at.

These examples show a society, which despite its occasional rigidity, is ultimately one which contains enough flexibility to be able to absorb the wayward ne’er-do-wells like Kokichi. It demonstrates that on the streets and in the life of Tokugawa Japan, caste restrictions and ranks, while real, were much less present than otherwise, and moralizing government discourses did little to inhibit the development of a free-wheeling, independent society that was lived by people the likes of Katsu Kokichi.


Andrew Gordon. A Modern History of Japan: From Tokugawa Times to the Present. New York, Oxford University Press, 2003.

James B. Collins. The State in Early Modern France. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Katsu Kokichi. Musui’s Story, The Autobiography of a Tokugawa Samurai. Tuscon, Arizona, The University of Arizona Press, 1988.

© 2018 Ryan Thomas


    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    No comments yet.