Medieval Japanese Culture: Did they really put so little worth on human life?

I’m re-reading Shogun for about the fifth time (hey, it’s a good beach book!) and there’s a lot of death and killing in it. Peasants are beheaded almost casually for being impolite to their liege lord, samurai willingly perform seppuku instead of being dishonored, people are boiled to death, etc. etc.

Yeah, I know it’s fiction. But samurai did exist, and seppuku did happen. But how often? What’s the reality? I guess I just have a hard time believing that so many people would stand for such a casual attitude towards life and death.

I will just say, having read up on a great deal of Japanese culture, that the Japanese mindset is so far from the Western mindset we cannot even comprehend it. Take this (heavily paraphrased) line from the book Hiroshima:

“And the Emperor for the very first time spoke on the radio. [post-bombing]. All of Japan gathered to hear his voice. And the Emperor spoke of moving forward, forgetting, and healing. And Japan started on her new way.”

And just like that, just because the Emperor said to, Japan moved on! Can you even imagine a Western country doing the same thing for their President/Prime Ministers?

I recommend studying up on Japanese medival history, it’s a fascinating study into a world most of us are distinctly unfamiliar with. The journey is priceless.

I think you’ll have a very hard time getting the answers you want. Here’s why. There are no statistics for the period, and modern historians interpret what little data exists with whatever spin they desire. In general, Japanese historians do not like to see their country at that time as inhuman or, in any case, worse than Europe.

Consider the European case. The Knights Templar were brutally suppressed, and we also know about the Inquisition, but do either of those things really let you know how much Europeans valued life at the time?

Yes, there were tons of executions, assassinations, etc., in the Japan of yore. There were also horrendous things going on in Europe, the Ottoman Empire, etc.

Anaamika makes an interesting point about Japan after WWII, but I don’t think it applies at all to the Japan of the distant past. Japan changed a great deal after Perry arrived, changed some more after the Meiji Restoration, changed more after the Russo-Japanese war, etc.

I guess the thing that really surprises me is seppuku - the whole ritualized suicide thing. As Aeschines pointed out, the practice of powerful people putting their minions to death at the drop of a hat was fairly common in medieval times (and still common today in some parts of the world.)

However, I’ve never heard of a culture where people were so quick to take their own lives. Your employer doesn’t like your work and fires you? Commit suicide. Husband dies dishonorably at war? Commit suicide. Look like you’re losing a battle and may be captured? Commit suicide.

Of course, the whole of my knowledge about this time period comes from one book of fiction, but hey, that’s why I started the thread.

First of all, you have to understand that most classical cultures did not place the kind of value you might on human life. Life was cheap and people died all the time of, well, everything: disease, war, accidents, hunger, et all. And Shogun is a very inaccurate depiction of that. Certainly while most Samurai professed they would commit Seppuku, I suspect more than a few were more interested in gaining power and wealth than killing themselves for honor. It did happen.

Second, remeber that the time Shogun speak of sees endless wars, political games, and conspiracies. And for all that, there was an awful lot of death.

Don’t overestimate the Emperor’s role. Try reading Embracing Defeat for a clearer picture of how things really were. Much of te supposed Emperor worship was never real and vanished overnight when the Emperor’s power went.

(Bolding mine)

Is? Surely you mean was. Right? I have been to Japan four times and have worked with the Japanese extensively over the last fifteen years as a client, vendor and collegue. There are numerous cultural differences, many of them very subtle, but we’re much, much more the same than we are different.


I never understood why people would feel the need to apologize for Shogun, it’s my favorite book personally, and extremely well written. James Clavell lived in the far east for many years, and studied the culture and history extensively.

Yoshi Toranaga is loosely based off of Shogun Tokugawa. Japanese culture is in many ways much more hivelike than American culture. The feudal hierarchy isn’t as different from Europe as many think. The Europeans of that time didn’t have a whole lot more respect for human life. European nobles killed themselves rather than be dishonored, most people had a superior that they were directly under on up to the Kings and Queens. The Daimyos are analogous to the kings and queens of Europe. The closest thing to the Shogun would probably be the Holy Roman Emperor, and the closest thing to the Emperor would be the Pope.

European nobility would be at a ball together one day and at war the next, they were all related in some form or another. People were persecuted daily being killed for no particular reason. People travelling alone were regularly press-ganged into some form of service or another, sold to the Moors etc…

In terms of social structure and grouping it’s largely similar, though when you get into the details of the culture it’s quite different. That social structure and the peculiar regard for human life that it engenders is pretty much endemic to all feudalist cultures whether it be the Roman empire, the Aztecs, the Japanese or Europe.

I think overall quality of life was probably better in Japan, and the east tended to have larger populations, because they had better standards of cleanliness in the east. The real thing about Japan that is the most peculiar is that they had the opportunity to be isolationist on such a large stretch of arable land.


Did you even read Shogun? Some of the main thrust of the plot has to do with someone avoiding Seppuku while waiting for the balance of power to shift in his favor.


That is currently true, but not necessarily historically accurate.
From the time Perry came, the Meiji Ishin, WWII, there were a lot of great leaders who came from nowhere and put things into motion and did it well.
Since the 1980s, however, the last of the individualist leaders have been dying off and retiring, and indeed they now have the issue of having no one to replace the leaders with but worker-bees.

But anything previous to 1850 wouldn’t be too terribly different from Feudalistic Europe.

^ Mostly all opinion.

I can’t say anything about the book, but I did see the Shogun miniseries a few years ago and thought it was the most absurd and inaccurate thing I’ve ever seen, attempting in every scene to show just how weird and different the Japanese are from “us” Westerners.

In that vein, more recently we had the disasterpiece The Last Samurai. It’s one thing to create something that is innacurate about Japan, but both of these productions were imbecilic white-man-as-samurai fantasies. Gimme a break.

Japanese culture is different and very frustrating, but to me the reason is not a lack of value for human life (have not seen that in my experience there) but the inconquerable impulse to do things “a certain way” whether or not that way benefits the individual, the group, or anybody. This combined with a lack of understanding of and disregard for Reason.

In concrete terms, for example, you’ll have stupid rules at a company. Do the rules help anyone in particular? No. Do they serve a social function? No. Can we change them? No.

That’s Japan. And it’s certainly more complicated than that. There is a preference for group cohesion over what Westerners typically view as rational and desirable ends. There is also this feel that things aren’t right unless people are suffering just a bit. There’s gotta be stress, a rushing about, a worrying about things.

I think the seppuku thing dovetails with this inherent negativity. Japan really is a self-destructive, conflicted, neurotic culture. I think the bombing of Pearl Harbor also reflects this: They knew they were going to get their ass kicked in the long run, but the rumpus of war and the self-punishment that would thereby arise just couldn’t be resisted.

The above is not as glamorous as chopping off heads and whatnot, but that’s my take on Japan having lived there eight years and studied the language and culture for 13.

That is still true in many respects, although changing in others. For example, if something goes wrong in a large corporation, no matter what, the CEO usually makes a public apology and resigns. Compare that with U.S. CEOs!

In WWII Japanese could not really understand the propensity of our servicemen to surrender. Although many Japanse were captured, most would rather die (or live in a cave for the next 40 years :slight_smile: ) than surrender. It was considered the ultimate shame to do so. And “suicide bombing” was invented by the Kamikazi.

It is difficult for people in a countlry only 250 years old to understand the traditions and culture of one a couple of thousand years old. While many Japanese have adapted to western ways, they still have a much, much stronger sense of honor than we are able to understnad. If that honor is soiled, taking one’s own life, to some, seems the only way to erase the stain.

I don’t know current statistics, but when I lived in Japan for a couple of years back in the late 40s, the suicide rate was still among the highest of civilized countries. It was not unheard of for a school kid to do so if he did not get accepted to a high school that was considered good enough, for example.

The Bushido code was pretty strict, and samarai, evidently, were expected to accept it without question. Death before dishonor. It always struck me as an enigma that the fiercest samarai, who would think nothing of chopping off a head, would sit under a cherry tree in blossom and weep at the beauty.

As others have noted, separating fact from fiction, however, is not easy.

Hell, I’ve been married to the same Japanese woman for 53 years and I still don’t understand her. :smiley:

I believe it’s due to a heavy (and I mean heavy) emphasis on the honor of your family name. To do something shameful doesn’t just reflect poorly on you, it also reflects on your family and your ancestors, who share some responsibility for shaping you into the person who committed the shameful act. Seppuku is essentially an act of saying “Yes, I screwed up, but I will atone for my screwup (and keep my family honor intact) by making the ultimate sacrifice.”

A good source for glimpses of medieval Japanese culture is – oddly enough – the monthly comic book Usagi Yojimbo by Stan Sakai. While superficially it’s the fictional adventures of a rabbit ronin during the era of the samurai, it is also meticulously researched and consistently well-written.

In the book Blackthorne becomes Toranaga’s vassal so that Toranaga can learn more about western culture. In the process Blackthorne becomes more and more attached to Toranaga, and becomes so assimilated that he is disgusted by his European contemporaries. It’s not so much about Blackthorne being a badass Samurai right out of the box, but about his political connection to Toranaga and how that unfolds. He is in no way superior to the Japanese in the story but more that he makes his way from being a pawn to a knight as time goes by. In the book it is very clearly understood that ALL of his power derives from Toranaga.


I’d say we have some rules that are the same way.

Does it hurt anyone in particular if I wear white shoes after Labor Day? No.

Does it serve a social function for no one to wear white shoes after Labor Day? None that I can tell.

Can we change that rule? At least some people still want to keep it.