Michael Wert gives guest lecture on samurai during Japan’s Edo period

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November 27, 2017

10:40 PM

During a Nov. 16 guest lecture, Michael Wert, a professor at Marquette University, discussed how during the Edo period in Japan, swordsmanship closed the gap between samurai reality and swordsman fantasy. He shared his research, which argues that samurai swordsman can be conceptualized through examining the fantasies of the peasant class. His guest lecture revolved around the question: Why did peasants participate in swordsmanship at all during this period?

According to Wert, the samurai and peasant identities converge via this fantasy; both sides established an ideal of what a warrior was, playing into the narrative of power during the rule of the Tokugawa shogunate. The Tokugawa shogunate was the last feudal Japanese military government, and the period of their reign became known as the Edo period. During this period, samurai made up the warrior-caste and were toward the top of the class hierarchy. Additionally, samurai are strongly linked with swordsmanship because they were the only ones allowed to carry long and short swords.

In examining this history, Wert said that although swordsmanship was a practice dominated by samurai, commoners began to participate in swordsmanship during the rule of the Tokugawa shogunate. He argues through his research that this became a vehicle for commoners and samurai to act out fantasies of what an ideal warrior was, which is a way to understand society and status leading up to the Meiji Revolution, which culminated with a return to imperial rule in Japan.

When we typically think of fantasy, we think of [it] as opposed to reality … as an escape from the everyday,” Wert said. “But here I mean fantasy in the Jacques Lacanian sense of fantasy, which is that fantasy is actually a support of day-to-day life. It informs how we act and the stories we tell about ourselves.”

“When we typically think of fantasy, we think of [it] as opposed to reality … as an escape from the everyday,” Wert said. “But here I mean fantasy in the Jacques Lacanian sense of fantasy, which is that fantasy is actually a support of day-to-day life. It informs how we act and the stories we tell about ourselves.”

While Wert argues this vehicle for fantasy is critical in understanding the history of particular violence, he said he does not see fantasy playing a similar role in contemporary America. However, Wert said that he does see this fantasy acting out around the world.

“Terrorists, though there might be some invocation of Islam, are really motivated by other things,” Wert said. “They’re disaffected, anti-Western; they’re also being motivated by video games, movies, notions of physical [and] masculine identity.”

According to Wert, one philosophical way to approach this relationship between the commoner and the elite is that sometimes the elites react to the pressure that is associated with their higher status. Then, those who are elite might be tempted to participate in an activity that is associated with commoners to relieve the pressure.

“It seemed like the Boston bomber … he’s a college student who smokes pot and so there’s this pressure that I’m supposed to be, I have to be enjoying myself as a college student who smokes pot, but there are people around me engaged in more meaningful things,” Wert said. “Maybe I should be doing that.”

Allison Bolton ’20 has an interest in samurai history and said she believes that the lecture helped to explain the present through the discussion of the past.

Like anything based in anthropology, you get a better view of the present by examining the past,” Bolton said.

“Like anything based in anthropology, you get a better view of the present by examining the past,” Bolton said.

Another student in attendance said that Wert’s arguments provided new information and were interesting.

“His new argument about the convergence of samurai and commoners is pretty novel to me,”

Bob Gough ’21 said. “I already think these two classes have difference, but I think these two classes actively participated in Japanese history together.”

Wert’s current research is a combination of his personal experience with swordsmanship in Japan and his intellectual interest in philosophers like Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan.

“They ask and attempt to answer the question, ‘Why do people do the things they do?’” Wert said. “That’s basically what I want to ask with swordsmanship. Why do people do swordsmanship? What does it benefit? [H]ow does it connect to their other activities in life, making money, their political interests for lack of a better term, their intellectual studies in poetry, etc.?”

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