The Last Samurai

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My wife and I are planning a trip to Japan for August 2017. It is a celebratory occasion because that month will mark my wife’s completion of her doctoral program to be a Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner. Christina is working her butt off to finish this degree and I personally feel a lot of the stress that emanates from her little body. School by itself is terrible, but to make matters worse she is studying, working, and interning at the same time. I thought that I wanted to go back to school to study History or Religion but I have come to my senses and just want to keep writing my blog posts. To prepare for my trip, I wanted to read more about Japanese History-leading me to read The Last Samurai: The Life and Battles of Saigō Takamori.

Saigō Takamori was born in 1828 to a Japan that was on the cusp of national change. Japan was divided into classes of status that essentially preordained a person’s role in life. One of those classes included samurai, which in Japanese translates to, “those who serve in close attendance to the nobility.” Samurai only made up about 10% of the Japanese population and were trained in military skills for the protection of their clan or lord. Many samurai lived on menial stipends and practiced farming to make ends meet. Think of Samurai as the Army Reserves-loyal fighters who could be called to service at anytime. During most of Saigō’s lifetime, Japan was divided between domains that were somewhat autonomous-samurai did not fight for the “nation” of Japan but rather the lord of their domain. A similar situation can be seen in the US during the Civil War-Robert E Lee fought for his “domain” of Virginia over that of the “nation” of the United States. Samurai were taught to have the utmost virtue in obeying their lord and it was common practice to use ritual suicide if they were wounded/defeated in battle or if they were disobedient in their service.

Saigō, during his adult life, was used by his Lord to ascertain political information in the modern day city of Tokyo. This job led Saigō to make many important connections and would subsequently get him exiled two times because of political fallout related to his Lord. While in exile, Saigō’s popularity in Japan soared and on his return he was one of the most well known individual’s in the country due to his resiliency, virtue in service, and overall strength. Saigō was influential in helping Japan convert a divided island of domains into a united modernized country. Japan had to change their political system because western countries, like America, were much stronger militarily and Japan felt threatened by the tides of modernization crashing upon its shores. The Meiji Restoration in 1868 brought back imperial rule and drastically changed Japan’s feudal system to a modern-western system. Saigō, inadvertently, helped promote the eventually death of the samurai class and all classes for that matter. After the Meiji Restoration, all people were citizens of a “united” Japan and could move up the ranks of society based on their personal successes. In 1877, Saigō led a rebellion against the central government because of oppressive military policies against his domain. This was one of the last stands of a samurai class that was “technically” no more. In the end, Saigō was killed but was turned into a national hero because of his moral acumen against corruption, his unfaltering leadership, and his status as Japan’s “Last Samurai.”




The Human Paradox

How does philosophy and marine biology relate? This question was answered, to my surprise, by John Steinbeck in The Log from the Sea of Cortez. Steinbeck is my favorite author and my college roommate, Chris O’Brien, recommended that I read this quite eclectic memoir. The memoir is a true account of Steinbeck, his marine-biologist friend, and a boat crew who took a 6-week journey around the Baja California Peninsula to collect marine animals from tidal zones. I was not expecting this type of book from Steinbeck and I had no idea he had interests in tiny invertebrates with obscure Latin names. Steinbeck is first and foremost a philosopher and he uses storytelling to translate his worldviews-obviously seen in his most famous works. What I loved most about The Log from the Sea of Cortez, was that Steinbeck took a quite banal subject of collecting samples of invertebrates and related it to philosophical thoughts on human behavior.

There is a strange duality in the human which makes for an ethical paradox. We have definitions of good qualities and of bad; not changing things, but generally considered good and bad throughout the ages and throughout the species. Of the good, we think always of wisdom, tolerance, kindliness, generosity, humility; and the qualities of cruelty, greed, self-interest, graspingness, and rapacity are universally considered undesirable. And yet in our structure of society, the so-called and considered good qualities are invariable concomitants of failure, while the bad ones are the cornerstones of success. A man—a viewing-point man—while he will love the abstract good qualities and detest the abstract bad, will nevertheless envy and admire the person who through possessing the bad qualities has succeeded economically and socially, and hold in contempt that person whose good qualities have caused failure. When such a viewing-point man thinks of Jesus or St. Augustine or Socrates he regards them with love because they are the symbols of the good he admires, and he hates the symbols of the bad. But actually he would rather be successful than good. In an animal other than man we would replace the term ‘good’ with ‘weak survival quotient’ and the term ‘bad’ with ‘strong survival quotient.’ Thus, man in his thinking or reverie status admires the progression toward extinction, but in the unthinking stimulus which really activates him he tends toward survival. Perhaps no other animal is so torn between alternatives. Man might be described fairly adequately, if simply, as a two-legged paradox. He has never become accustomed to the tragic miracle of consciousness. Perhaps, as has been suggested, his species is not set, has not jelled, but is still in a state of becoming, bound by his physical memories to a past of struggle and survival, limited in his futures by the uneasiness of thought and consciousness. (pg 80 para 2).

We are in constant battle within ourselves when it comes to survival and morals. Sadly, our society uplifts the pursuit of money, status, and selfishness while the pursuit of consciousness is only given credence when it benefits the latter pursuits. Which child would parents brag about most? One who grows up to have a high-paying career but luke-warm ethics or a child who grows up to have a low-paying career but strong ethics. Humans, in a sense, were taken out of the primordial oven before all of our consciousness was congealed. We have sentience but at the same time we have the survival instincts of a sea cucumber. The sins of survival are all around us; in the sense of personal survival there is the relentless pursuit of money and status; in the sense of generational survival their is the obsession with sex. The key to completing the “baking” process is being conscious of our limited consciousness. How can we gain consciousness? I believe it is best done by acquiring knowledge, learning from the mistakes of our ancestors, and looking at the world with an open perspective. Realize what you really need to survive—food, water, shelter, access to modern medicine, security—and once you have obtained those things focus your efforts on—”wisdom, tolerance, kindliness, generosity, and humility.” We will never reach perfection but at least we can point our feet in the right direction.