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Do You Really Want to Live in Feudal Japan – The Hazards of Life in the Sengoku Jidai

As a serious martial artist, I spend my time around people who devote huge chunks of their lives to the martial arts. Many of these people have dove right into the deep and life-changing journey that is the progress towards mastery. Many of these same people are also deeply interested in the history and the exciting legends that surround the lives of the great martial artists of the past. I am quite conversant in the many tales of derring-do of the likes of Miyamoto Musashi, Yagyu Muneyoshi, and Hattori Hanzo, to name a few. Tales like theirs have inspired generations of budding martial artists to continue and pursue mastery in their chosen art. These tales serve an important purpose and give the modern martial artist a link to the rich history of the martial arts.

Something else I hear pretty frequently is the phrase, “I wish I lived back in feudal Japan.” Granted, I understand quite well where the person who says this is coming from: the gilded sengoku jidai (warring states period, ~1450-1603) that is kept alive in the legends is a place of adventure and honorable combat, a place where legends live and freedom is won at the blade of a skillful sword.

However, as one with a good working knowledge of the conditions of the sengoku jidai, I steer away from these statements of longing. There are a number of easily overlooked or quickly forgotten simple facts that put the kybosh on these dreams real fast. The answer to the question: “would you want to live in feudal Japan?” should almost certainly be, “NO WAY!”

Let’s take a look at why:

For one thing, the name sengoku jidai really says what it means – Warring States. This time was tumultuous and chaotic, with life expectancy down in Japan as low as it was in Europe during the same period. In Europe, the low levels of cleanliness ushered in by the post-plague years, coupled with bad diet and lack of working medicine, lowered the life expectancy to below fifty. In Japan, despite the healthy diet and working knowledge of natural medicine, life expectancy was worse than or equal to that of the average contemporary European. This was due almost exclusively to the rampant war that occurred between the many feudal states that divided Japan. The chances of being involved in a battle were high – for everyone, not just the warrior class. The peasants and craftspeople, commoners and courtiers, all were equally threatened by the advancing and constant tide of war.

An important note about war – war requires weapons, and weapons require steel. Constant war also requires large groups of people, most of whom are poorly trained conscripts. It would be a poor decision to outfit large groups of conscripts with expensive, high quality weaponry. These people were often furnished with low quality, secondhand gear, often scavenged off of the dead after battle. Battles, marching, and general army activities caused more than average exposure to the elements. What resulted was a nasty equation: poorly trained conscripts, combined with cheap steel weapons and exposure to weather, yields rusty, weathered weapons in the hands of a great many people on the front lines of an encounter.

This puts the feudal Japanese literally at the center of Tetanus Junction. The convenient tetanus inoculations of the modern era are taken for granted by most, but for the feudal Japanese samurai, conscript, or any other person, sustaining even a scratch could spell death through the agonizing onset of lockjaw. This is not even to mention the health risks of being present on a large battlefield covered in corpses of men and horses lying out in the open, strewn with discarded weapons, many of which are rusty.

Even if one won the fight and defeated his opponent, the risk of tetanus or other infection from small wounds sustained was high. The Daimyo (lord) Ii Naomasa, a vassal of the famous Tokugawa Ieyasu, sustained a firearm wound in the battle of Sekigahara in 1600, and spent the next year and a half lingering before he died of complications from the very same wound. And remember, as a lord under the victor of the battle and soon-to-be ruler of all Japan, Naomasa had access to the best possible medical treatment available. It is interesting to note that a tactic utilized by some ninja (special operatives) in sengoku jidai, was to allow their throwing blades and spikes, swords, and other cutting weapons to rust. This allowed them to present frightening, visibly extra dangerous weapons in battle, striking fear into the hearts of those opposed and giving the ninja the upper hand.

In addition to the general state of war and the disease hazards posed by battle, the fact was that even the poorly trained conscripts so disdained by the samurai were expert warriors in comparison to most human beings today. For most, even their grandparents had been born during a time when war was ever-present. The idea of fighting to preserve house and home was second-nature to nearly everyone. One would be hard pressed to find a person in that era who was not familiar with conflict intimately – even amongst the clergy. The level of familiarity with combat meant that a great deal of the population was at the very least accustomed to the use of some weapon or another, even if the standard ones were not allowed, as in the case of non-samurai, who were legally barred from possessing swords after the late 1580s. The feudal Japanese were nothing if they were not a people painfully familiar with war. From the children entering battle at ages that would not earn them a middle school diploma in modern society to the young housewives wielding naginata (halberds) against marauding home invaders, there were few, even among the low classes, who had not seem more death and conflict than most people alive today.

In short, feudal Japan was a place that was war-torn, exposed people to high risk of battle-related disease, and had a populous that was nearly ubiquitously familiar with war and warfare. One of the reasons that people like Miyamoto Musashi and Hattori Hanzo were and are looked up to so greatly is that they managed to succeed and thrive in feudal Japan, despite the rampant war, the battle illnesses, and the general warlikeness of their fellow Japanese. The sheer level of knowledge and skill these people learned through their life experience must have been staggering! Beyond the three big issues I have covered here, there are countless other factors that made the lives of the feudal Japanese difficult and dangerous, even in peacetime. So, when you build your time machine and ask me if I want to go back and live in feudal Japan, I’ll be saying, “No.” Good luck out there, though!