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The Religion of Loyalty 

"MILITANT societies," says the author of the Principles of Sociology, "must have a patriotism which regards the triumph of their society as the supreme end of action; they must possess the loyalty whence flows obedience to authority, — and, that they may be obedient, they must have abundant faith," The history of the Japanese people strongly exemplifies these truths. Among no other people has loyalty ever assumed more impressive and extraordinary forms; and among no other people has obedience ever been nourished by a more abundant faith, — that faith derived from the cult of the ancestors.

The reader will understand how filial piety — the domestic religion of obedience widens in range with social evolution, and eventually differentiates both into that political obedience required by the community, and that military obedience exacted by the war-lord, — obedience implying not only submission, but affectionate submission, — not merely the sense of obligation, but the sentiment of duty. In its origin such dutiful obedience is essentially religious; and, as expressed in loyalty, it retains the religious character, — becomes the constant manifestation of a religion of self-sacrifice. Loyalty is developed early in the history of a militant people; and we find touching examples of it in the earliest Japanese chronicles. We find also terrible ones, — stories of self-immolation.


To his divinely descended lord, the retainer owed everything — in fact, not less than in theory: goods, household, liberty, and life. Any or all of these he was expected to yield up without a murmur, on demand, for the sake of the lord. And duty to the lord, like the duty to the family ancestor, did not cease with death. As the ghosts of parents were to be supplied with food by their living children, so the spirit of the lord was to be worshipfully served by those who, during his lifetime, owed him direct obedience. It could not be permitted that the spirit of the ruler should enter unattended into the world of shadows: some, at least, of those who served him living were bound to follow him in death. Thus in early societies arose the custom of human sacrifices, — sacrifices at first obligatory, afterwards voluntary. In Japan, as stated in a former chapter, they remained an indispensable feature of great funerals, up to the first century, when images of baked clay were first substituted for the official victims. I have already mentioned how, after this abolition of obligatory junshi, or following of one's lord in death, the practice of voluntary junshi continued up to the sixteenth century, when it actually became a military fashion. At the death of a daimyō it was then common for fifteen or twenty of his retainers to disembowel themselves. Iyéyasu determined to put an end to this custom of suicide, which is thus considered in the 76th article of his celebrated Legacy: —


"Although it is undoubtedly the ancient custom for a vassal to follow his Lord in death, there is not the slightest reason in the practice. Confucius has ridiculed the making of [effigies buried with the dead]. These practices are strictly forbidden, more especially to primary retainers, but to secondary retainers likewise, even of the lowest rank. He Is the reverse of a faithful servant who disregards this prohibition. His posterity shall be impoverished by the confiscation of his property, as a warning for those who disobey the laws."


Iyéyasu's command ended the practice of junshi among his own vassals; but it continued, or revived again, after his death. In 1664 the shōgunate issued an edict proclaiming that the family of any person performing junshi should be punished; and the shogunate was in earnest. When this edict was disobeyed by one Uyémon no Hyogé, who disembowelled himself at the death of his lord, Okudaira Tadamasa, the government promptly confiscated the lands of the family of the suicide, executed two of his sons, and sent the rest of the household into exile. Though cases of junshi have occurred even within this present era of Meiji, the determined attitude of the Tokugawa government so far checked the practice that even the most fervid loyalty latterly made its sacrifices through religion, as a rule. Instead of performing harakiri, the retainer shaved his head at the death of his lord, and became a Buddhist monk.


The custom of junshi represents but one aspect of Japanese loyalty: there were other customs equally, if not even more, significant, — for example, the custom of military suicide, not as junshi, but as a self-inflicted penalty exacted by the traditions of samurai discipline. Against harakiri, as punitive suicide, there was no legislative enactment, for obvious reasons. It would seem that this form of self-destruction was not known to the Japanese in early ages; it may have been introduced from China, with other military customs. The ancient Japanese usually performed suicide by strangulation, as the Nihongi bears witness. It was the military class that established the harakiri as a custom and privilege. Previously, the chiefs of a routed army, or the defenders of a castle taken by storm, would thus end themselves to avoid falling into the enemy's hands, — a custom which continued into the present era. About the close of the fifteenth century, the military custom of permitting any samurai to perform harakiri, instead of subjecting him to the shame of execution, appears to have been generally established. Afterwards it became the recognized duty of a samurai to kill himself at the word of command. All samurai were subject to this disciplinary law, even lords of provinces; and in samurai families, children of both sexes were trained how to perform suicide whenever personal honour or the will of a liege-lord, might require it.... Women, I should observe, did not perform harakiri, but jigai, — that is to say, piercing the throat with a dagger so as to sever the arteries by a single thrust-and-cut movement.... The particulars of the harakiri ceremony have become so well known through Mitford's translation of Japanese texts on the subject, that I need not touch upon them. The important fact to remember is that honour and loyalty required the samurai man or woman to be ready at any moment to perform self-destruction by the sword. As for the warrior, any breach of trust (voluntary or involuntary), failure to execute a difficult mission, a clumsy mistake, and even a look of displeasure from one's liege, were sufficient reasons for harakiri, or, as the aristocrats preferred to call it, by the Chinese term, seppuku. Among the highest class of retainers, it was also a duty to make protest against misconduct on the part of their lord by performing seppuku, when all other means of bringing him to reason had failed, — which heroic custom has been made the subject of several popular dramas founded upon fact. In the case of married women of the samurai class, — directly responsible to their husbands, not to the lord, — jigai was resorted to most often as a means of preserving honour in time of war, though it was sometimes performed merely as a sacrifice of loyalty to the spirit of the husband, after his untimely death.1 In the case of girls it was not uncommon for other reasons, — samurai maidens often entering into the service of noble households, where the cruelty of intrigue might easily bring about a suicide, or where loyalty to the wife of the lord might exact it. For the samurai maiden in service was bound by loyalty to her mistress not less closely than the warrior to the lord; and the heroines of Japanese feudalism were many.

In the early ages it appears to have been the custom for the wives of officials condemned to death to kill themselves; — the ancient chronicles are full of examples. But this custom is perhaps to be partly accounted for by the ancient law, which held the household of the offender equally responsible with him for the offence, independently of the facts in the case. However, it was certainly also common enough for a bereaved wife to perform suicide, not through despair, but through the wish to follow her husband into the other world, and there to wait upon him as in life. Instances of female suicide, representing the old ideal of duty to a dead husband, have occurred in recent times. Such suicides are usually performed according to the feudal rules, — the woman robing herself in white for the occasion. At the time of the late war with China there occurred in Tōkyō one remarkable suicide of this kind; the victim being the wife of Lieutenant Asada, who had fallen in battle. She was only twenty-one. On hearing of her husband's death, she at once began to make preparations for her own, — writing letters of farewell to her relatives, putting her affairs in order, and carefully cleaning the house, according to old-time rule. Thereafter she donned her death-robe; laid mattings down opposite to the alcove in the guest-room; placed her husband's portrait in the alcove, and set offerings before it. When everything had been arranged, she seated herself before the portrait, took up her dagger, and with a single skilful thrust divided the arteries of her throat.

Besides the duty of suicide for the sake of preserving honour, there was also, for the samurai woman, the duty of suicide as a moral protest. I have already said that among the highest class of retainers it was thought a moral duty to perform harakiri as a remonstrance against shameless conduct on the part of one's lord, when all other means of persuasion had been tried in vain. Among samurai women — taught to consider their husbands as their lords, in the feudal meaning of the term it was held a moral obligation to perform jigai, by way of protest against disgraceful behaviour upon the part of a husband who would not listen to advice or reproof. The ideal of wifely duty which impelled such sacrifice still survives; and more than one recent example might be cited of a generous life thus laid down in rebuke of some moral wrong. Perhaps the most touching instance occurred in 1892, at the time of the district elections in Nagano prefecture. A rich voter named Ishijima, after having publicly pledged himself to aid in the election of a certain candidate, transferred his support to the rival candidate. On learning of this breach of promise, the wife of Ishijima, robed herself in white, and performed jigai after the old samurai manner. The grave of this brave woman is still decorated with flowers by the people of the district; and incense is burned before her tomb.

To kill oneself at command — a duty which no loyal samurai would have dreamed of calling in question — appears to us much less difficult than another duty, also fully accepted: the sacrifice of children, wife, and household for the sake of the lord. Much of Japanese popular tragedy is devoted to incidents of such sacrifice made by retainers or dependents of daimyō, — men or women who gave their children to death in order to save the children of their masters.2 Nor have we any reason to suppose that the facts have been exaggerated in these dramatic compositions, most of which are based upon feudal history. The incidents, of course, have been rearranged and expanded to meet theatrical requirements; but the general pictures thus given of the ancient society are probably even less grim than the vanished reality. The people still love these tragedies; and the foreign critic of their dramatic literature is wont to point out only the blood-spots, and to comment upon them as evidence of a public taste for gory spectacles, — as proof of some innate ferocity in the race. Rather, I think, is this love of the old tragedy proof of what foreign critics try always to ignore as much as possible, — the deeply religious character of the people. These plays continue to give delight, — not because of their horror, but because of their moral teaching, — because of their exposition of the duty of sacrifice and courage, the religion of loyalty. They represent the martyrdoms of feudal society for its noblest ideals.

All down through that society, in varying forms, the same spirit of loyalty had its manifestations. As the samurai to his liege-lord, so the apprentice was bound to the patron, and the clerk to the merchant. Everywhere there was trust, because everywhere there existed the like sentiment of mutual duty between servant and master. Each industry and occupation had its religion of loyalty, — requiring, on the one side, absolute obedience and sacrifice at need; and on the other, kindliness and aid. And the rule of the dead was over all.


Not less ancient than the duty of dying for parent or lord was the social obligation to avenge the killing of either. Even before the beginnings of settled society, this duty is recognized. The oldest chronicles of Japan teem with instances of obligatory vengeance. Confucian ethics more than affirmed the obligation, — forbidding a man to live “under the same heaven" with the slayer of his lord, or parent, or brother; and fixing all the degrees of kinship, or other relationship, within which the duty of vengeance was to be considered imperative. Confucian ethics, it will be remembered, became at an early date the ethics of the Japanese ruling-classes, and so remained down to recent times. The whole Confucian system, as I have remarked elsewhere, was founded upon ancestor-worship, and represented scarcely more than an amplification and elaboration of filial piety: it was therefore in complete accord with Japanese moral experience. As the military power developed in Japan, the Chinese code of vengeance became universally accepted; and it was sustained by law as well as by custom in later ages. Iyéyasu himself maintained it exacting only that preliminary notice of an intended vendetta should be given in writing to the district criminal court. The text of his article on the subject is interesting: —


" In respect to avenging injury done to master or father, it is acknowledged by the Wise and Virtuous [Confucus] that you and the injurer cannot live together under the canopy of heaven. A person harbouring such vengeance shall give notice in writing to the criminal court; and although no check or hindrance may be offered to the carrying out of his design within the period allowed for that purpose, it is forbidden that the chastisement of an enemy be attended with riot. Fellows who neglect to give notice of their intended revenge are like wolves of pretext:3 their punishment or pardon should depend upon the circumstances of the case."


Kindred, as well as parents; teachers, as well as lords, were to be revenged. A considerable proportion of popular romance and drama is devoted to the subject of vengeance taken by women; and, as a matter of fact, women, and even children, sometimes became avengers when there were no men of a wronged family left to perform the duty. Apprentices avenged their masters; and even sworn friends were bound to avenge each other.

Why the duty of vengeance was not confined to the circle of natural kinship is explicable, of course, by the peculiar organization of society. We have seen that the patriarchal family was a religious corporation; and that the family-bond was not the bond of natural affection, but the bond of the cult. We have also seen that the relation of the household to the community, and of the community to the clan, and of the clan to the tribe, was equally a religious relation. As a necessary consequence, the earlier customs of vengeance were regulated by the bond of the family, communal, or tribal cult, as well as by the bond of blood; and with the introduction of Chinese ethics, and the development of militant conditions, the idea of revenge as duty took a wider range. The son or the brother by adoption was in respect of obligation the same as the son or brother by blood; and the teacher stood to his pupil in the relation of father to child. To strike one's natural parent was a crime punishable by death: to strike one's teacher was, before the law, an equal offence. This notion of the teacher's claim to filial reverence was of Chinese importation: an extension of the duty of filial piety to "the father of the mind." There were other such extensions; and the origin of all, Chinese or Japanese, may be traced alike to ancestor-worship.

Now, what has never been properly insisted upon, in any of the books treating of ancient Japanese customs, is the originally religious significance of the kataki-uchi. That a religious origin can be found for all customs of vendetta established in early societies is, of course, well known; but a peculiar interest attaches to the Japanese vendetta in view of the fact that it conserved its religious character unchanged down to the present era. The kataki-uchi was essentially an act of propitiation, as is proved by the rite with which it terminated, — the placing of the enemy's head upon the tomb of the person avenged, as an offering of atonement. And one of the most impressive features of this rite, as formerly practised, was the delivery of an address to the ghost of the person avenged. Sometimes the address was only spoken; sometimes it was also written, and the manuscript left upon the tomb.

There is probably none of my readers unacquainted with Mitford's ever-delightful Tales of Old Japan, and his translation of the true story of the "Forty-Seven Rōnins." But I doubt whether many persons have noticed the significance of the washing of Kira Kôtsuké-no-Suké's severed head, or the significance of the address inscribed to their dead lord by the brave men who had so long waited and watched for the chance to avenge him. This address, of which I quote Mitford's translation, was laid upon the tomb of the Lord Asano. It is still preserved at the temple called Sengakűji: —


"The fifteenth year of Genroku [1703], the twelfth month, the fifteenth day. — We have come this day to do homage here: forty-seven men in all, from Oishi Kuranosuké down to the foot-soldier Térasaka Kichiyémon, all cheerfully about to lay down our lives on your behalf. We reverently announce this to the honoured spirit of our dead master. On the fourteenth day of the third month of last year, our honoured master was pleased to attack Kira Kōtsuké-no-Suké, for what reason we know not. Our honoured master put an end to his own life; but Kira Kōtsuké-no-Suké lived. Although we fear that after the decree issued by the Government, this plot of ours will be displeasing to our honoured master, still we, who have eaten of your food, could not without blushing repeat the verse, "Thou shaft not live under the same heaven, nor tread the same earth with the enemy of thy father or lord," nor could we have dared to leave hell [Hades] and present ourselves before you in Paradise, unless we had carried out the vengeance which you began. Every day that we waited seemed as three autumns to us. Verily we have trodden the snow for one day, nay, for two days, and have tasted food but once. The old and decrepit, the sick and the ailing, have come forth gladly to lay down their lives. Men might laugh at us, as at grasshoppers trusting in the strength of their arms, and thus shame our honoured lord; but we could not halt in our deed of vengeance. Having taken counsel together last night, we have escorted my Lord Kōtsuké-no-Suké hither to your tomb. This dirk, by which our honoured lord set great store last year, and entrusted to our care, we now bring back. If your noble spirit be now present before this tomb, we pray you, as a sign, to take the dirk, and, striking the head of your enemy with it a second time, to dispel your hatred forever. This is the respectful statement of forty-seven men."


It will be observed that the Lord Asano is addressed as if he were present and visible. The head of the enemy has been carefully washed, according to the rule concerning the presentation of heads to a living superior. It is laid upon the tomb together with the nine-inch sword, or dagger, originally used by the Lord Asano in performing harakiri at Government command, and afterwards used by Oďshi Kuranosuké in cutting off the head of Kira Kōtsuké-no-Suké; — and the spirit of the Lord Asano is requested to take up the weapon and to strike the head, so that the pain of ghostly anger may be dissipated forever. Then, having been themselves all sentenced to perform harakiri, the forty-seven retainers join their lord in death, and are buried in front of his tomb. Before their graves the smoke of incense, offered by admiring visitors, has been ascending daily for two hundred years.4

One must have lived in Japan, and have been able to feel the true spirit of the old Japanese life, in order to comprehend the whole of this romance of loyalty; but I think that whoever carefully reads Mr. Mitford's version of it, and his translation of the authentic documents relating to it, will confess himself moved. That address especially touches, — because of the affection and the faith to which it testifies, and the sense of duty beyond this life. However much revenge must be condemned by our modern ethics, there is a noble side to many of the old Japanese stories of loyal vengeance; and these stories affect us by the expression of what has nothing to do with vulgar revenge, — by their exposition of gratitude, self-denial, courage in facing death, and faith in the unseen. And this means, of course, that we are, consciously or unconsciously, impressed by their religious quality. Mere individual revenge — the postponed retaliation for some personal injury — repels our moral feeling: we have learned to regard the emotion inspiring such revenge as simply brutal — something shared by man with lower forms of animal life. But in the story of a homicide exacted by the sentiment of duty or gratitude to a dead master, there may be circumstances which can make appeal to our higher moral sympathies, — to our sense of the force and beauty of unselfishness, unswerving fidelity, unchanging affection. And the story of the Forty-Seven Rônins is one of this class....


Yet it must be borne in mind that the old Japanese religion of loyalty, which found its supreme manifestation in those three terrible customs of junshi, harakiri, and kataki-uchi, was narrow in its range. It was limited by the very constitution of society. Though the nation was ruled, through all its groups, by notions of duty everywhere similar in character, the circle of that duty, for each individual, did not extend beyond the clan-group to which he belonged. For his own lord the retainer was always ready to die; but he did not feel equally bound to sacrifice himself for the military government, unless he happened to belong to the special military following of the Shogun. His fatherland, his country, his world, extended only to the boundary of his chief's domain. Outside of that domain he could be only a wanderer, — a rōnin, or "wave-man," as the masterless samurai was termed. Under such conditions that larger loyalty which identifies itself with love of king and country, — which is patriotism in the modern, not in the narrower antique sense, — could not fully evolve. Some common peril, some danger to the whole race — such as the attempted Tartar conquest of Japan — might temporarily arouse the true sentiment of patriotism; but otherwise that sentiment had little opportunity for development. The Isé cult represented, indeed, the religion of the nation, as distinguished from the clan or tribal worship; but each man had been taught to believe that his first duty was to his lord. One cannot efficiently serve two masters; and feudal government practically suppressed any tendencies in that direction. The lordship so completely owned the individual, body and soul, that the idea of any duty to the nation, outside of the duty to the chief, had neither time nor chance to define itself in the mind of the vassal. To the ordinary samurai, for example, an imperial order would not have been law: he recognized no law above the law of his daimyō. As for the daimyō, he might either disobey or obey an imperial command according to circumstances: his direct superior was the shōgun; and he was obliged to make for himself a politic distinction between the Heavenly Sovereign as deity, and the Heavenly Sovereign as a human personality. Before the ultimate centralization of the military power, there were many instances of lords sacrificing themselves for their emperor; but there were even more cases of open rebellion by lords against the imperial will. Under the Tokugawa rule, the question of obeying or resisting an imperial command would have depended upon the attitude of the shōgun; and no daimyō would have risked such obedience to the court at Kyōto as might have signified disobedience to the court at Yedō. Not at least until the shogunate had fallen into decay. In Iyémitsu's time the daimyō were strictly forbidden to approach the imperial palace on their way to Yedō, — even in response to an imperial command; and they were also forbidden to make any direct appeal to the Mikado. The policy of the shogunate was to prevent all direct communication between the Kyōtō court and the daimyō. This policy paralyzed intrigue for two hundred years; but it prevented the development of patriotism.

And for that very reason, when Japan at last found herself face to face with the unexpected peril of Western aggression, the abolition of the daimiates was felt to be a matter of paramount importance. The supreme danger required that the social units should be fused into one coherent mass, capable of uniform action, —  that the clan and tribal groupings should be permanently dissolved, —  that all authority should immediately be centred in the representative of the national religion, —  that the duty of obedience to the Heavenly Sovereign should replace, at once and forever, the feudal duty of obedience to the territorial lord. The religion of loyalty, evolved by a thousand years of war, could not be cast away: properly utilized, it would prove a national heritage of incalculable worth, — a moral power capable of miracles if directed by one wise will to a single wise end. Destroyed by reconstruction it could not be; but it could be diverted and transformed. Diverted, therefore, to nobler ends — expanded to larger needs, — it became the new national sentiment of trust and duty: the modern sense of patriotism. What wonders it has wrought, within the space of thirty years, the world is now obliged to confess: what more it may be able to accomplish remains to be seen. One thing at least is certain, — that the future of Japan must depend upon the maintenance of this new religion of loyalty, evolved, through the old, from the ancient religion of the dead.


1 The Japanese moralist Yekken wrote: "A woman has no feudal lord: she must reverence and obey her husband.”

 2 See, for a good example, the translation of the drama Terakoya, published, with admirable illustrations, by T. Hasegawa (Tōkyō).

3 Or "hypocritical wolves,” — that is to say, brutal murderers seeking to excuse their crime on the pretext of justifiable vengeance. (The translation is by Lowder.)

4 It has been long the custom also for visitors to leave their cards upon the tombs of the Forty-seven Rônin. When I last visited Sengakuji, the ground about the tombs was white with visiting-cards.

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