Happy December, everyone!
This post is a (sort-of) continuation of this one, from when I first started this blog a couple months ago. I like to call this series of posts the “destroying misconceptions of Japanese culture in gaming” series. Today, let’s talk about samurai.
Are samurai the only intriguing aspect of Japanese culture worth including in Japan-themed roleplaying games?
Imagine for a moment…
Transport yourself back to the Warring States period (Sengoku-jidai) of Japanese history. You are a samurai warrior with a katana of awesomeness! Battles are raging. You are fighting for your lord, who you know must be a pretty good guy. After all, he gives you money, and if you show him the head of an important enemy, he’ll give you even more money. Life is good.
But wait. What’s this? A warlord named Tokugawa Ieyasu has unified Japan? Who is this guy, and why did he have to go and take away your awesome head-gathering katana days? You settle down. Have a son. Life is good? You guess. But it was much better when you were awesome with your awesome katana.
A few decades pass. You pass, too. Your son, by blood, is a samurai. Does this mean he is awesome, too, and has an awesome sword and will fight in awesome battles? Nope. It just means, because of the juice that flows in his veins, he gets to be part of an upper echelon of the symbolic social pyramid. So yep, technically, he’s a samurai. He reads stories about you and your adventures during the bloody days, when you were fighting battles practically every day.
What about your son’s sword? Well, it’s a brush. And instead of dripping with blood, it’s dripping with sumi ink. Instead of a battlefield, he must wage war within an accounting ledger. His actual sword-sword (two of them) are nothing more than ceremonial symbols of his status. Life is good?
Edo period samurai
The above defines samurai during the Edo period. This is a funny time period, because samurai exist as a social class, but they aren’t fighting wars. There aren’t any wars to fight. Sword-fighting styles and schools exist, largely for academic / cultural purposes, not practical warfare purposes. In fact, during wars, samurai rarely wielded their katana at all — they chose more battlefield-friendly weapons from a Japan-themed arsenal.
Samurai during the Edo period were essentially bureaucrats. With no wars to fight, they didn’t acquire fighting experience. So, who did have fighting experience? Well, how about rōnin protecting merchants from the yakuza? Or hired thugs themselves? Or, really anyone with access to weaponry? During the Edo period, fighters of Japanese-y awesomeness are not generally samurai… at least, not samurai as you might know them. There are, of course, exceptions. The police force, for example. Firefighters. Checkpoint guards. Etc. So, essentially, if you were to play as a samurai during the Edo period, you’d basically be playing as a bureaucrat or a cop.
Then you have the Neo-Confucian indoctrination of the samurai class, instigated by the shogunate. It’s an interesting state of affairs, but in terms of roleplaying game characters, adherents of Neo-Confucianism don’t exactly scream, “Play me! I’m so exciting!” During this time period, the merchant/artisan class has more social mobility, and growing power and influence. Even though a pyramid symbolically shows the samurai near the top, samurai have a fixed income, are often impoverished, and must resort to the creation of cheap crafts just to get by. While samurai are inside of their estates, filling out ledgers, doing their “duty” to the shogun via number-crunching and name-recording, the real adventures are out there — being had by the misfits, oddballs, and outcasts. The vagabonds.
The strange stuff going on in the Vagabonds game world is too “low” for the samurai caste — it isn’t “honorable”, and it isn’t a battle worthy of lord or domain. So instead, leave the bizarre, Edo period X-Files stuff to the weirdos. They’re the only ones crazy enough to believe in that mumbo jumbo anyway, right?
The cool things about a Japan-themed RPG
It’s a huge misconception of Japanese culture that all cool things in a Japan-themed RPG must be samurai or ninja. That being said, Vagabonds characters can certainly wield weapons from a Japan-themed arsenal just as efficiently as any samurai (if not better, seeing as samurai in this time period often carried swords more as a status symbol than anything else). A katana-wielding rōnin could be a vagabond, just as much as a blind divining monk. Or really, any vagabond can be a warrior-type, if his/her background permits. Wait until you see our “training” scheme, as well. Our character creation options are fun precisely because they do not restrain players to being samurai.
Therefore, if you want to be a katana-wielding warrior of awesomeness, we aren’t going to stop you. But this game emphasizes that your katana-wielding warrior of awesomeness should be interesting, complicated, and outcaste. The story of how this warrior of awesomeness became those things — well, that tidbit is up to you and your imagination. One thing is for certain: the warrior of awesomeness is not currently a “samurai warrior”.
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A couple things. #1: Of course, this post is in reference to what we want for Vagabonds. We have played and loved a variety of Japan-themed games over the years, and will continue to do so!
The idea here is to think more multidimensionally about your options. Your Vagabonds character can still be from the samurai caste — but there’s a reason the character is currently a vagabond. I might regret this, but how about a quick anime reference: Jin from Samurai Champloo was a samurai who belonged to a prominent sword-fighting school prior to becoming a rōnin. For a more historical perspective, author/historian Travis Belrose writes a good deal about Ishikawa Jozan, a poet who is usually referred to as a “samurai recluse”. This could also be a potential inspiration for a Vagabonds character, despite the fact that he was technically part of the samurai class for a good deal of his life (who proceeded to do all kinds of interesting things, like build Shisen-do, which became a Zen retreat for mountain recluses).
#2, I am thinking about submitting a piece of short fiction to the Samurai Archives fiction writing contest (if I can muster enough free time to do so). In my reading of the guidelines, I stumbled upon the 2009 winner. It’s called “Johnny Jones, Samurai”, and it’s about a man in modern times who fantasizes about “Oriental women” and “samurai”, and gets his chance to go back in time to experience being a samurai. Unfortunately, he is transported back to the Edo period, and hilarity ensues. Read the story here. It’s relevant to this whole samurai business.
#3, this is an interesting article about a book titled The Aesthetics of Strangeness: Eccentricity and Madness in Early Modern Japan. I haven’t read the book yet (it’s on the way over). Regardless, judging by this article, it seems relevant to the concepts Vagabonds is attempting to capture — i.e., characters who are the antithesis of Neo-Confucian indoctrination, or at least the antithesis of the shogunate-imposed social order. This book covers artists, but the concepts could just as well be applied to vagrant swordsmen, religious figures, woodland hermits, etc.