Taming Western Perceptions: Separating the West from the East Before the existence of airplanes, the internet and a global economy, the world was much less culturally homogenized. Nowadays, America and Japan are two nation states in what historians call The Modern Era. Both countries are hyper-industrialized and have stable constitutional governments. It is obvious that somewhere between an undefined “then” and “now” the lines between “east” and “west” have blurred significantly.
Considering this, where does Japan derive its sense individuality? This is the question that Eiko Ikagami seeks to answer in her book The Taming of the Samurai. Romanticized samurai are ever-present in western conceptions of foreign Japan. Katana wielding warriors in elaborate armor have been featured endlessly in American and Japanese entertainment alike. Are the samurai, as we know them, simply a vestige of a now dead culture? Are the Japanese clinging to an outdated old mascot from their past? Ikagami doesn’t think so.
The development of the samurai class is one of the most important features of Japanese History. The Samurai were not a group of ruthless warriors, as they are often portrayed; in actuality, Samurai were an elite group whose ideologies and actions have significantly influenced Japan’s political and cultural development. Eiko Ikagami’s The Taming of the Samurai dissects the history of the samurai class. The samurai, over the course of the book, prove to be key figures in the formation of modern Japan.
From a western perspective, the book helps to eliminate and in some cases explain western preconceptions about Japan. Beyond that, I find that the values and ideals that Ikegami attributes to Japanese society illuminate many problems with western society and serve to elaborate on the east-west dichotomy debate. In this respect, The Taming of the Samurai defines Japanese culture just as successfully as it critiques western perceptions. Ikegami’s primary goal in Samurai is to isolate and understand the forces that drive individualism in Japanese culture.
In her introduction, Ikegami poses the question: “how can a nation be so successful in the fields of industrialization and business management, while encouraging its population to overvalue collectivist thinking and the status quo, and correspondingly devalue individualism and bold innovation? ” (Ikegami 3). The tension that exists between collectivism and individualism is a theme which pervades the entire book and largely defines Ikegami’s argument. Early in the book, Samurai emerge as the champions of Japanese individualism.
Scholarly history books are notoriously boring to read; Ikegami’s, however, is engaging and genuinely interesting from front to back. Her writing is straightforward and concise which makes the concepts in the book easy to grasp. The book doesn’t quite move chronologically through historical events and times, rather it builds concept upon concept in order to paint a vivid and realistic picture of the samurai and their role in the formation of modern Japan.
When she first discusses the birth of the samurai class, Ikegami sets the scene for their arrival by introducing some social theories and political structures that defined the mentality of these first samurai. She contrasts early Chinese hegemonic order, which was highly bureaucratic and rooted in Confucian scholarship, with early Japanese hegemonic order, which rested in the hands of the landed military elite. Ikegami shows how early Japan was peaceful despite being a feudal state ruled by landed military elites.
By contrasting early styles of government used by two separate eastern nations, Ikegami shows how governing bodies develops without western influence and furthers her argument about eastern individualism. Her method of using globally understood historical concepts to explain the development of Japan certainly makes the country’s history easier to grasp. One of Ikegami’s key points is that the Samurai mythos still exists today and has been a driving force in Japans construction.
Samurai ideals have, in actuality, been on the minds of Japanese people since early in history because the samurai themselves were the primary players in the keeping of order. At first glance, title of the book suggests that the samurai are a wild bunch in need of taming. Ikegami demonstrates the opposite. Samurai are, from the beginning, shown to be unwaveringly honorific. She explains that honor, in early Japanese culture, is essentially a system of social stratification. The samurai, being the most honorable, were keepers of social order. Ikegami portrays honor in a way that undermines the traditional “western” concept of honor.
She distinguishes between the search for “honor” and the search for “glory” by comparing the “volatile” search for glory that drove medieval westerners with the moral medieval samurai, who strived for honor. Early in the book, she defines Japan’s honor society as one which is rooted in violent reactions to threats rather than maintenance of order. Ikegami further engages the reader with highly entertaining anecdotes derived from various primary sources. The samurai emerge onto the scene of history as paradoxically moral killing machines. Consequently, early tales of samurai are highly entertaining.
There is much discussion of honor culture before the samurai even enter the picture. Ikegami successfully dispels the myth that samurai are ruthless killing machine by explaining the hierarchies that existed. One of the most interesting points that emerge in the early chapters of the book is the idea of honorific violence In modern American culture, violence is ever present in popular entertainment. In reality, however, popular American culture has no concept of truly honorific violence; violence is known to be unacceptable. Through the Samurai class, Ikegami is able to demonstrate the difficult concept of honorific violence.