Last month had been a bloodbath. But, it was expected and pre-calculated. One cannot subvert the proud samurai by an edict. Whatever the consequences, Iiyeshu had succeeded in bringing all the warring and feudal Daimyo under his flag in his plan to establish the Tokugawa Shogunate. It was the 16th century Japan. Like the elsewhere world, the land of the Rising Sun was immersed in the dark and bloody middle ages.
The term ‘Samurai‘ means ‘To serve’. The samurai were employed by Daimyo, who were regional warlords. There was no retirement for the samurai and they were expected to be fiercely loyal and obedient. They were bound by a strict code of conduct, called Bushido – The Way of the Warrior. Their lords were responsible for their upkeep, which was quite a lot, considering their weapons and other fineries. Serving a Daimyo was not a job for a samurai. It was an honor. A masterless samurai was called a Ronin. They were considered honorless and were destined to lead a life of ignominy. Most of the Ronin turned into bandits or monks as they didn’t have any other options of survival.
Tokugawa Iiyeshu decided to defeat the warring Daimyo and unify them under his banner. By doing this, he stirred up a veritable hornet’s nest! How can you intimidate someone, who doesn’t fear death? The ultimate honor for a samurai was seppekku, or ritual suicide for his master. It was a desperate battle, which Iiyeshu won by guile, strength and sheer force of personality. At five feet two inches, he was a compact dynamite and as unpredictable and volatile. The shogun was the highest title a mortal could achieve in Japan. The emperor was considered divine – a direct descendant of Sun – and titled Mikado, or ‘The Way to Sun‘.
Today he was agitated beyond measure. He was invited by The August Emperor to form the Tokugawa Shogunate and the royal messenger was robbed and murdered by a band of wild Ronin, led by that abomination Toda Omi.
Toda Omi was a samurai under Toranaga Noboru, a Daimyo of Kaizen province. After Iiyeshu defeated Noboru and invited him to commit seppekku, all his samurai were either asked to serve under Tokugawa banner or turn into Ronin. Toda Omi-san was too proud to serve the enemy and became a Ronin.
The life of a ronin wasn’t exactly comfortable. The samurai never cared for money as they were not filthy merchants. They never had any savings. Omi initially wandered from province to province, fighting for anyone, who will pay. It was a mercenary life. For a short stint he worked as a guard for a Buddhist monastery in Joh Ji province as they were frequently attacked by bandits and robbers. He left the monastery, when they were unable to pay him for his upkeep. Toda Omi hated being a monk, so the only remaining option was to turn into a bandit himself.
He invited other wandering ronin and formed his own motley band. He was slowly becoming a nuisance for Iiyeshu. Like a true leader, he had an orderly gang and a banner depicting three bamboo shoots around a red sun.
One day he saw a rich looking cortege crossing through the jungle and attacked it in hope of rich plunder. The palanquin had an old man in royal uniform. His dyed black teeth proclaimed that he’s a senior official of Mikado’s court.
The ronin who attacked the palanquin were nothing but peasant samurai and didn’t know the difference between a merchant and a royal official. By the time Omi reached to the palanquin after slaughtering the guards, the royal emmisary was beheaded by a clean cut of Katana. Omi did recognize the royal signs, but there was nothing anyone can do now. Karma, neh?
It was an ultimate insult to Iiyeshu that the imperial messenger was intercepted and murdered in his fief. Now the only option to gain face before The August One was to either bring the head of the rebel or to commit seppekku by slitting his own belly in the Royal Court before the Emperor in Kyoto.
Iiyeshu closed his eyes and sighed contentedly. The steam was filling into the tiny bath house, giving it an ethereal look. He marshalled his thoughts and composed a haiku– the three lined, 17 syllable poem- preferred by the samurai for its simplicity, brevity and mysticism.
Fleeting days of life.
Silent screams of frantic heart.
A dream within dreams!
When he stepped out, he saw his blind masseur Suwa waiting patiently outside the bath house. Only samurai had proper names and last names. Rest were named according to their trade or village and never had a last name. Like Anjin, the sailor; Akabo, the porter; etc. Only a samurai could be addressed by the honorific, such as ‘san‘ or ‘sama‘.
Iiyeshu laid on the rice mats- tatami, while Suwa massaged him with his steel fingers. The tatami are always made in the exact size of six feet by three and all the houses were built by their measure. In fact, the concept of modern modular homes is based on Japanese tatami. He decided to order his commander Kasigi Buntaro to prepare an assault to feret out the outlaws. He called for Buntaro san.
The 55 years old warrior entered and sat before his master. His long, seathed killing sword Dai Katana loose in his left hand to protect his liege lord, and the shorter Wakizashi in his sash. This was always the custom with Kasigi Buntaro. Before Iiyeshu could explain the reason for this summon, Buntaro explained the latest threat.
“The Koreans have attacked us with the help of Ikawa Jikyu, the daimyo of Suruga province. They also have 500 muskets. Iiyeshu-sama, it’s going to be a tough war. We need all our forces to attack Suruga immediately.”
Iiyeshu laughed,”Buntaro-san, we are more than a match for Jikkyu and his band of Koreans. Omi is hiding in the forests of Izu. You take a contingent of 100 samurai and smoke him out. My son Sudara will march his battalion of 1500 samurai through the Tokaido road. You meet him after finishing that cursed Omi and then attack Suruga. By the name of Amida Buddha, we will have the heads of both by tomorrow night.”
“Iiyeshu-sama, Omi is never a threat for your realm. However, I don’t trust the treacherous Jikkyu. He doesn’t have an honor and will stoop to any extent to defeat you.” Buntaro fumed. “I want to have the pleasure of beheading him by my sword tetsuko.” By tradition, swords were always given a name. Tetsuko (Iron Lady) was a famous character in the Nöh plays.
It was a well planned operation and the band of ruffians were no match for the orderly samurai. It seemed a one sided battle. They were routed out of their hiding place and were given a chase by the samurai. Once the samurai reached in an open ground, they faced a shower of well aimed arrows from the hidden bandits. Their dreaded standard was flying atop a tree. It was a well-planned ambush by Toda Omi, the samurai turned ronin.
The samurai of Kasigi Buntaro were astonished momentarily, but rallied around. It was a fierce battle and Buntaro decided to retreat to an advantageous position, when he heard musket shots and couple of his samurai fell down.
The samurai abhorred guns as it was considered a cowardly way to fight. There was no honor in killing an enemy without facing him. It was against the code of Bushido. Buntaro saw the Korean Flag and understood that the plan has failed horribly. Instead of they going to meet the trouble, the trouble has found them unaware. He knew that his army of around 80 samurai will not be able to handle Korean troops, armed with muskets. He screamed a fierce battle cry ‘Banzai…!’ and pitted his pitiful troop against the unseen guns, the attack on Omi momentarily forgotten. The gang of bandits took advantage of this and vanished in the mountains like a startled group of rats. Buntaro just hoped for reprieve from Sudara. It was a desperate battle, where the samurai knew that they were doomed.
Suddenly he felt that the muskets were firing but, the target was not his troops. He was elated! So, Sudara-san has arrived with his force. He encouraged his remaining soldiers and launched a final desperate attack. The Korean troops were caught in a pincer. They seemed distracted and started to retreat. The samurai of Buntaro gave a chase to the Korean soldiers till the end of the forest and then met the incoming army of Tokugawa Sudara. Buntaro was amazed! If Sudara-san is arriving now, who diverted the Korean platoon? He went back to the other side of the clearing and found corpses littered around. One of the dead men had a tattered Flag with three bamboo shoots around a red sun in his hand. When they removed the mask covering the ronin’s face, it was Toda Omi.
Kasigi Buntaro sat down next to the body and bowed reverentially. They washed and cremated the body of the slain samurai and continued their march to Suruga.
Like all traitors, Ikawa Jikkyu did not have the guts to face a direct attack and immediately surrendered. He was ordered to commit seppekku in the name of Tokugawa Iiyeshu.
Tokugawa was presented with the cleaned and mounted heads of Toda Omi and Ikawa Jikkyu, as was the custom. Kasigi Buntaro related the exact account of the skirmish and the surprising reprieve from the outlaw. Tokugawa Iiyeshu was silent for a few minutes and then stood up. He bowed deeply to the mounted head of Omi and held his bow as to a senior. The entire court was surprised! Tokugawa Iiyeshu no Minowara no Chikitada, Premier Regent of the Kwampaku council, future Shogun of Japan, bowed deeply to the severed head of an outlawed ronin and whispered to the silent court:
“Dripping blood from sword.
Toda Omi-san lived like a dog, but died like a samurai. He will be reborn as a samurai on his 40th day.”