Getting Inside the Head of the Long Dead

Samurai RisingDon’t be alarmed by the ghoul­ish­ness of my title. Try­ing to res­ur­rect the life of some­one who turned to dust cen­turies ago is a chal­lenge, espe­cial­ly if the per­son left behind no per­son­al writ­ings such as let­ters or diaries. But it can be done. In prepa­ra­tion for writ­ing Samu­rai Ris­ing: The Epic Life of Minamo­to Yoshit­sune, I read all the aca­d­e­m­ic and pri­ma­ry sources I could find about late-twelfth-cen­tu­ry Japan. And while what-hap­pened-when is the basis of biog­ra­phy, you can chal­lenge stu­dents (or adults) to dig deep­er. If you real­ly want to try to get into the head of the long dead, go beyond the obvi­ous. Try answer­ing these questions.

What did this per­son believe was going to hap­pen after they died?

No, I don’t mean what they thought might hap­pen to their king­dom or their rep­u­ta­tion. I mean: did they believe in an after­life? How would such a belief (or lack of belief) col­or their per­cep­tion of the world? Twelfth-cen­tu­ry Japan­ese of Yoshit­sune’s social class were Bud­dhists. In all like­li­hood, at the very end of his life Yoshit­sune accept­ed that his fate was deter­mined by kar­ma (the sum of good and bad deeds dur­ing his cur­rent and past lives). He hoped that his next life would be kinder and he would be reunit­ed with his friends and family.

What assump­tions did this per­son have about their place in society? 

In oth­er words … there was prob­a­bly some­thing about this per­son­’s role or sta­tus that they nev­er ques­tioned. What was it?

We are all mem­bers of human soci­ety. Each soci­ety, in each time peri­od, has some under­ly­ing assump­tions that are rarely (if ever) ques­tioned. Nobody in Yoshit­sune’s time ques­tioned the notion that the Emper­or was semi-divine … or that some peo­ple were bet­ter than oth­ers because of their impe­r­i­al descent … or that loy­al­ty should be based on blood­lines. I think it’s safe to say that Yoshit­sune enthu­si­as­ti­cal­ly believed in his own supe­ri­or­i­ty. If you insist­ed to him that “all human beings are equal” he would’ve thought you were nuts.

(Extra cred­it if you can artic­u­late an assump­tion from con­tem­po­rary cul­ture that may seem real­ly bonkers to your great-great-great-great grandchildren.)

How was this per­son impact­ed by tech­nol­o­gy (or lack of it)? 

Here’s an exam­ple. The tech­nol­o­gy of war­fare in twelfth-cen­tu­ry Japan demand­ed that samu­rai lead­ers dis­play per­son­al brav­ery and cred­i­ble mar­tial skills. In those days you had to get up close and per­son­al to kill your ene­my — with­in ten yards to be real­ly accu­rate in horse­back archery, and much clos­er with spear or sword. There were no guns, no can­nons, no sit­ting in HQ and phon­ing orders to your troops. To be an effec­tive leader Yoshit­sune had to be will­ing to risk his life.

What’s under­neath all that armor?

What kind of under­pants did this per­son wear?

What’s under­neath all that armor?

Some­one actu­al­ly asked me this about Yoshit­sune. Amus­ing­ly triv­ial? Well, as it turns out, you can’t answer the ques­tion with­out an under­stand­ing of the mate­r­i­al cul­ture spe­cif­ic to the soci­ety and time peri­od. So here we go.

When Yoshit­sune was an appren­tice monk, he would have worn a loin­cloth (a strip of cloth wrapped and tied around his pri­vates). It would’ve been made of hemp cloth because that’s what poor peo­ple used as fab­ric in twelfth-cen­tu­ry Japan. (Cot­ton was­n’t intro­duced until cen­turies lat­er.) When Yoshit­sune was old­er and liv­ing in Hiraizu­mi, Kamaku­ra, and Kyoto, he would have had clothes ben­e­fit­ting his sta­tus, and high-sta­tus Japan­ese wore silk. How­ev­er, I strong­ly sus­pect that when dressed in full armor, wear­ing a loin­cloth under his haka­ma (wide-legged trousers) would’ve made reliev­ing him­self quite a has­sle. In that case I think Yoshit­sune would’ve gone commando.

See how much fun bio­graph­i­cal research is?

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3 years ago

I thor­ough­ly enjoyed this post. I loved Samu­rai Rising!