At the beginning of the seventeenth century, Japan was reeling from hundreds of years of internal wars and power struggles. After the Siege of Odawara in 1590, Toyotomi Hideyoshi had emerged as a unifier of all the Samurai clans, which basically made him Shogun. But his moment of glory was short lived.
Almost immediately, he launched a series of invasions of Korea between 1592 and 1598, which were abject failures for the Japanese military ruling class. The idea had been to use Korea as a jumping-off point for a full-scale invasion of mainland China, but the Samurai never made it past Seoul.
Hideyoshi died in 1598, and two years later, the last remnants of Oda Nobunaga’s armies joined forces with Tokugawa Ieyasu and others to defeat what was left of Hideyoshi’s army at the Battle for the Sundered Realm (Sekigahara). This was the beginning of the Tokugawa Shogunate, and the inglorious end of Hideyoshi’s great legacy.
Hideyoshi hadn’t been satisfied with being the most powerful Samurai in all of Japan. He’d also wanted all of Korea and China, and it was that arrogance that destroyed him, his family, and his armies.
Moving forward 385 years, I remember reading about this when I was 15, and wondering why the Samurai warlords were so full of themselves. In a culture that prizes humility and filial piety, these men were arrogant enough to assume ownership of their whole country, and then (in their minds) the rest of Asia, expecting whole countries to bow before them. It was Hideyoshi who banned the carrying of weapons by non-Samurai, for example. They walked the streets of Edo or Kyoto and expected peasants to fall to their knees when addressed, and they outright killed people who didn’t comply. Complete and abject subservience was the expectation.
Today, what world history remembers about the Samurai is their martial spirit, their bushido. In martial arts circles, we love to recount these stories of military conquest, either by the great Samurai warlords of the sixteenth century or by great black belts in the training halls and tournaments of our own time. We love to make connections between our own training and that of the Samurai. We name our schools “Bushido Martial Arts” or “Samurai Karate Academy” and we teach our six-year-old students all about the respect and honor that was expected of the Samurai.
Someone, somewhere, must also be teaching them Hideyoshi’s arrogance. It’s not universal, but there are a lot of martial arts teachers who are doing their level best to carry on the Samurai tradition of expecting complete subservience from their students (who are paying for the honor). Sometimes people forget their place and time, and imagine themselves to be great Samurai daimyo, ruling over a parcel of land in feudal Japan and commanding a legion of private soldiers rather than teaching a handful of martial arts students in 21st-century Suburbia. This sort of delusional thinking leads some modern-day sensei to ruin, dashed upon the rocks of their own Hideyoshi-like arrogance.
So, if you’re haunted by the ghost of the arrogant Samurai Hideyoshi, here are a few reminders of your place and time.
1. You do not own your students. They come to you for guidance in one specific area of their lives, namely martial arts instruction. Period.
2. You are not Samurai, and your students are not your loyal retainers. They are your students in whatever you’re teaching them while in your dojo, and that’s all.
3 .The time you spend with them is not only “your” time, but also theirs. You’re not doing them any favors by wasting it with lectures on behavioral issues.
4. Your students owe you NO explanation for their comings and goings. If a student can’t make it to class for a month, you might want to ask him or her if everything is okay, from a friendly perspective, but don’t expect an apology or an explanation if they don’t feel like giving one.
If Hideyoshi’s ghost haunts your dojo, you may do well to remember what happened to Hideyoshi in the first place. Although he was known as Japan’s second unifier (Nobunaga was first and Tokugawa third), he died of the bubonic plague and left his armies at war in a foreign land with no one to effectively lead them. His arrogance had led to a culture of dissention, infighting and backstabbing within his armies, and his own key generals switched sides, along with the remainders of Nobunaga’s armies, to ally with Tokugawa Ieyasu. At the Battle for the Sundered Realm in October of 1600, Hideyoshi’s reeling and weakened forces were almost completely destroyed. Those who survived were hunted like wild game for the remainder of their lives, and for a time his name was even stricken from history texts.
The fate of the arrogant sensei in modern America may be less dramatic, of course, but in the end we all get our comeuppance. That's karma, and it can no more be thwarted than can gravity or the IRS. Let's all remember our place and time, and keep the ghost of Hideyoshi at bay.