Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Revelation: A Samurai's Tale

My name is Mitsubishi Jiro*. I doubt anyone will ever find my name in many history books of this great warring era of the late 1500's. Though my family are famous merchants in the Settsu province along the trading seaport, I left them when I achieved manhood. I do not have a head for figures, or planning, or any desire for the counting of coins day after day. They sent me to be educated but I failed. I was the black sheep of the family, an outcast who brought shame.

I don't know the words to tell you what a burden that was. I would have died to be different and not be a black stain on our family name. I prayed at night for the gods to make me smarter and not be this heavy load to my parents. Instead, I only sunk deeper and I knew I must run away to serve my family best. This broke my heart and I wondered deeply at the cruelty of life. I only wished to serve but my dearest request was denied.

I remember that day I first started out on the road north. I felt vaguely guilty for it but when I looked up at the clouds and the sky I thought to myself, "These are my true friends." They welcomed me and I rejoiced wondering why I had never noticed them before. I was so inspired I wrote my first  - and last - poem:

Dreaming clouds drift by
Mountain roads climbing the sky;
Days that never die.

Even I don't know what it means but I liked it seeing the hope rising inside me. I had only a whisper of a plan having heard of a famed warlord named Oda. He struck me as being "the one", the man of greatest understanding in the land. I had only my instincts to go on but something on that day told me I was at long last on the right path. All the leaves and grasses were full of gentle promise!

The Owari province was not far by land but was a world away from the merchant's life I had known. I felt their sense of purpose; these men walked in a different stride. Even the villagers had an extra spark, telling me with wide eyes how they'd helped fool the enemy at their Lord's command as part of his greatest victory. I'd heard bits and pieces of the story before but now I knew it was true. This man Oda had defeated an army ten times his own using his brains and his guts. If I could serve him I'd finally be of some worth.

But would a clan such as this accept a black sheep like me? I was terrified. I was more than terrified. If I'd had anything at all waiting for me back in Settsu I would have run back and accepted my lowly status for life, properly shamed for thinking too much of myself. But even with my defective brain I knew to have life I must risk death. And besides, this new exciting feeling I had begged me to stay - and to dream like the clouds.

My family taught me the only trick I knew. I offered gold coins to become samurai. At first they laughed. But something came over me and I barked back at them not to mock my dream. Finally, they accepted me like a brother and I was placed under the Oda general Shibata Katsuie. Since I had money I was able to outfit myself in the best of armor but when I heard the muttered remark I was not worthy of such fine armor I knew it was true.

I begged for training and maybe because I was so eager everyone jumped to teach me. I had heard of other war clans where the samurai were tricksters and not of the same mind. In Oda's camp everyone thought the same, wanted the same and worked for the same: victory and total rule over Japan. What lofty ambition! And it was during this training I finally found myself, changing me forever. My gift was with the bow and arrow.

I have what they call "the eye and touch". It was like starting out on the road from Settsu all over again, the further I traveled the better I felt. I was winning archery competitions and soon competed against the best of the Oda archers. My great rival was Tekishi and we dueled many times but always in good spirit. I did not mind losing to him but still I worked all the harder to be the best!

I remember thinking: what a hell my life would have been had I turned back! Life was not so cruel after all, but drives you to the place where you should be.

As an archer, Tekishi was also under general Shibata who led all us arrow men. Tekishi told me Shibata had at one time rebelled against our lord Oda, siding with Oda's brother. But our lord did not have him killed he was so impressed with Shibata's loyalty and bravery. Oda, said Tekishi, valued men who could prove themselves. If you would fight for him, he will fight for you. This was my first taste of ambition and I wondered if I would measure up.

I was dying to meet our lord but I must admit I was fearful too. I remembered my initial fears leaving Settsu and yet how well that turned out, and tried to tell myself this too would turn out well. But was my lucky streak coming to an end? I had been granted great fortune so far. How much can a man expect? Was hard to believe I had fully shed my black sheep label. To tell the truth, I knew I had not. Ultimate misfortune may still come my way.

As a reward for my prowess, I was granted guard duty to a high council meeting, our great lord there with all the highest generals. A fire raged in the middle just as their words did. I could not hear specifics but I could their tone - and I could tell when lord Oda spoke. His voice was not so desperate. Sometimes it was mocking and it brought back all the worst fears of the mocking teachers of my boyhood. Bakana! I have asked too much. Everyone knew lord Oda tolerated no fools. Only a matter of time before I was exposed.

Shibata Katsuie

I felt like a thousand ants were crawling over my body. I had to leave at all costs. I needed to find an easier clan, one not so ambitious and expecting of its men. My heart raced like never before, as if I was trapped by an army of scolding schoolteachers. I even had sweat dripping into my eyes in the cool autumn evening. It was then I learned that risking life was infinitely harder than risking death. My only hope was that this lesson would remain a private one as I planned my escape.

But my secret desire betrayed me to the universe. As if out of the same dream that started with the clouds, who pulled back the compound's cloth to face me but the intense eyes of Oda Nobunaga, the greatest warlord in the land.

"I do not recognize you. Who posted you here?"

"Maeda Toshiie," I gulped.

Blessed be the gods but that name satisfied him as he observed me with a face revealing nothing of his thoughts or desires. I had never before - or again - felt so naked. But I realized that's what I wanted: total freedom and to be totally known by the mind I respected most. It was like jumping off a cliff but not falling, pure ecstasy that defies all logic. Then I heard his single word: "Come"

I did not reproach myself as I entered the inner council of these great men. Seeing their faces reflected in the fire one could see notable and wise character etched into their features. I certainly was not - and could never be - one of them but I had our lord's blessing to enter and that felt to me as cause enough to hold up my head. Yes, I wanted this - I wanted this test of fire. So what if I may burn into the night!

I knew I could not lie to that face.

"What is your name?"

"Mitsubishi Jiro Of Settsu, my lord!" A couple of generals smiled at my uncontainable enthusiasm.

"Mitsubishi Jiro Of Settsu, we are in a deadlock. I see by your quiver you are in Katsuie's division. I must join an ally to fight a battle that leaves Chokoji castle vulnerable. If it were to fall it would create an abscess in my domain, delaying my plans by years. Katsuie-san says he can hold this castle even against greater numbers he will face. I need to know: is this true."

No one was laughing or smiling as I looked around. My mind was in a state of unbelievability. Maybe this was a dream within a dream. Whatever I said, I could see this men would truly listen. These same men I knew to be the center of our country's destiny, the center of my universe. For better or worse, time had come to come clean. No more hope of hiding.

"I have no brain for strategy, my lord! My knowledge is in my arrow. Please forgive me!"

I waited for death but death did not come. My lord broke into a wide smile and started to laugh. The generals too joined in the laughter. But I did not feel I was being laughed at. In my hour of revelation I was saved, never the black sheep again! I felt a thousand boulders lifting from my shoulders.

"Did you hear that? We can all learn from an honest man. My mind is made up. Katsuie, you shall defend Chokoji castle and woe be to the fools who lay siege!"

My lord and the generals were all very happy. I was happy too! Never had I felt so free! My ideas of life and death reversed. I want to keep exploring this path! What had I stumbled onto? Was I to somehow to play a role among the wisest men in the nation? I was standing on the mountaintop and I could see forever. I had to say something before I burst.

"My lord, we will not fail! We will not fail you ever!"

It must have sounded like a child's promise but I could not hold back my heart. Then I heard my worst fear: that same chastising voice of the teachers who hated me so for not learning my books. Like an arrow I could not escape it landed directly in my heart, draining my lifeblood and leaving my carcass to be devoured by dogs. Ah well, at least I had known triumph for a moment before death.

"You fool!" snarled a general's voice. "Don't you know our lord is mocking you?"

But like a man raised out of quicksand, I heard my lord retort in great anger.

"[Akechi] Mitsuhide, you fool! I never mock an honest man. Honesty is the highest form of intelligence."

In my soul, on my honor and on my life, I swore from that moment on I would serve my lord with every fiber of my being without hesitation or regret. I had been reborn, my dedication complete. Never had such words been spoken of me. I never even dreamed them possible. I'd found my true home and family among the Oda. That night in my tent I shed moonlight tears, caring not any who saw. I knew my way onward now.

CODA: There are many more tales of the adventures I had with lord Oda as part of his personal guard. The same honesty he brought out in me he brought out in all his troops. With that edge we felt no one could defeat us and believing that made us what we were. I cannot imagine a better time to be alive, the dreaming clouds following me wherever I went. Till the very end I remained with my lord Oda, just I had wished - and vowed.

But the name Akechi Mitsuhide would rear its ugly head once more to live in forever infamy. I hated that man from that night forward and if I had killed him on the spot as I had wished, the course of history would have changed for the better - much, much better.

[*Japanese names are listed with the surname first. Many merchant families later incorporated to become the Japanese companies we know today, including the Mitsubishi family.]

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