Wednesday, 28 December 2016

The Peasant and the Daimyo.


A sensei once told me a story about a poor Japanese peasant farmer and his feudal lord. This is my rendition of it.


Once upon a time, the lowliest, poorest peasant in the poorest farming hamlet in the domain of some unremarkable Japanese feudal lord (daimyo) managed to offend his master. So insignificant was the affront, by so an insignificant man, that history forgot all about it.

The mighty daimyo, however, the most skilled swordsman in the fief (han), in spite of the peasant's apologies, preferred to take great offence and challenged him to a duel, to take place the following day, at sunrise.

Maybe the unsophisticated mind of a peasant could have missed the mockery involved in the "challenge": it was a crime punishable by death for a peasant to own swords (katanas). Everybody knew it. Katanas were the soul of the samurai: peasants had no soul.

Harder to overlook, even by a peasant, was the certainty of death. And, miserable as his life already was, full of toil, humiliation, hunger, disease, Peasant did not want to die. So, again he apologised to his lord making an extra effort to show more humility and contrition.

To no effect.

Then he promised compensation and begged and grovelled.

All to no effect.

Beyond the pleasure his own self-debasement gave Daimyo, there was nothing else he could offer. Even that was of such little value that the Daimyo quickly tired of it, leaving him alone in despair awaiting for next morning.

Peasant desperately thought. Running away? No, that wouldn't do. Neighbouring daimyos would deny him passage through their han and Daimyo would send his samurai to hunt him down.

Perhaps there was a clever way to cheat death! Heroes of legend, after all, do that all the time. But the hamlet elders knew of none. The unspoken truth is that they all thought he was going to die.

Still, the elders reminded him of the hermit warrior monk (yamabushi) living in a cave in the mountain. Monks were smart and learned and knew many tales. Perhaps he could help him. At least, he could provide him some comfort.

Peasant, however, didn't want spiritual comfort before death. He wanted to live. He, nevertheless, had no better idea and nothing to lose, so he decided to go.

Hours later, shortly after nightfall, Peasant found the yamabushi in his cave. Quickly explaining his situation, he asked for advice. He wanted to live.

After deep reflection, Yamabushi said: "You can only die".

Peasant had refused that certainty earlier. Now, however, he didn't. Why not? History doesn't say. Maybe he was too exhausted by search and hunger and hopelessness and had no strength left to deny the truth any longer: he was going to die and, unfair as it was, there was nothing he could do about it.

At any rate, Peasant humbly thanked Yamabushi and prepared to leave.

Yamabushi stopped him: "It's getting dark and soon you'll die. But you are alive now. You don't need to spend what little time you have left, your last hours, alone, in the dark, and hungry. Stay and share a meal with me. Tomorrow I'll guide you back to the hamlet.".

Peasant accepted.

As they ate, Yamabushi told him that every spring the roaring streams, fed by melting snow, carry rocks and soil and pebbles of all shapes and colours away from Mount Fuji, down into the valleys and the sea. One day, in the distant future, long after the Emperor and the Shogun and all daimyos are gone, the sacred Mount – whom those who never witnessed its beginning assure him was once created by the goddess Segen-sama – will be no more.

"Summer flies are to daimyos, as daimyos are to Mount Fuji", explained Yamabushi. "Everything has a beginning, or is born, everything has and end, or dies. Some lead shorter lives, some lead longer lives. That's the way of things. Why should a humble peasant be any different?"

Peasant opposed: "But death is a bad thing. No?"

"Death is the end, the cessation of life", replied Yamabushi. "If one's life is full of glory and joy and pleasure, death is the cessation of glory and joy and pleasure; if one's life is full of misery, death is the cessation of misery".

And they talked and talked. Hours went by.

Engrossed by the conversation, a pleasure peasants seldom enjoyed, Peasant almost missed the eastern sky slowly turning red/orange, as it does before sunrise. It was time.

What did Peasant make of Yamabushi's wisdom? Sensei never told me. What he did tell me is that Peasant and Yamabushi went back to the hamlet.

On their way through the forest, Yamabushi produced a katana from under his cloak and offered it to Peasant.

"You are going to die by a samurai's katana", he said. "You might as well confront Daimyo with one in your own hands."

Peasant, however, politely refused: "I wouldn't know how to use it".

"Then, you must learn some basics", the Yamabushi added. And he showed Peasant how to stand and hold the katana properly.

"Don't think and never lose contact with Daimyo's eyes", he added. "When he's ready to strike, you'll see death in them. Then, without any hesitation, strike him like this -- as fast as you can, with all your might. A lowly peasant cannot cheat death. Nobody can".

Shortly after sunrise, when Daimyo and his retainers arrived in the village, Peasant was awaiting in the middle of the village's one dirt track, the other villagers somberly watching from their hut's doors.

Surprised that, instead of cowering somewhere, Peasant stood there, calmly holding a katana and looking at him straight in the eyes, in a recognisable if crude swordplay stance, Daimyo cautiously approached on his horse.


The story Sensei told me had no clear ending: the moral of his story was that bushido (the way of the warrior) requires more than weapons and martial arts technique. Whatever the reality of historical bushido, the bushido Sensei honestly believed in was highly ethical.

I, however, will give you not only one ending, but two. It's our great New Year BOGOF Sale and you get two for the price of one!

First Ending

Something was out of place, Daimyo decided. Fearing an ambush by a rival daimyo, he readied himself to flee before demanding: "Whose katana is that?"

"Mine", answered Yamabushi, stepping away from Peasant's filthy shack, so as to be seen clearly. "I lent it to him".

"Master!" mumbled Daimyo, upon recognizing Yamabushi, some composure lost.

"I didn't know this peasant was your trainee", Daimyo explained. "He never told me, Master, I assure you. I could never harm a fellow student. I'll withdraw my challenge, if that's acceptable".

Second Ending

"You stole that katana to scare me?", spat Daimyo. "Fool! To yesterday's affront you just added a crime! I'll enjoy this", he screamed while dismounting theatrically.

To no effect. This time Peasant didn't drop to his knees.

Slowly unsheathing his own katana, eyes locked on eyes, the now silent Daimyo approached Peasant, stopping a couple of meters in front of him.

Seeing the incoming strike in Daimyo's eyes, Peasant did a lowly peasant's best impersonation of a swordsman.

For the briefest moment, all there was is movement and the swishing of swords slicing the still morning air. Then, silence following a loud thud.

To nobody's surprise, Peasant's head rolled a few meters on the ground, stopping not far from the katana he once held. His body, limp, fell right next to Daimyo, blood splattering the latter's expensive robe.

The smirk in Daimyo's face, however, quickly turned into an expression of disbelief and pain and horror: a second bloodied katana was lying on the ground, two severed arms still holding it, blood gushing profusely from stumps where his arms used to be.


  1. that was a strangely uplifting story, its gory 2nd ending notwithstanding. i could almost hear the swords.
    - the oo

  2. Great, informative blog you have here. I had bookmarked it a few days before seeing you have that discussion with Tom over at MNE.

    I looked back at one of the posts where "Lord Keynes" is discussed here in the comments and it gave me a completely different POV about that blog.

    I had read his site off and on for a few years, but going through some Hedlund responses and seeing the reaction he had with his argumentation tactics made me feel like there was much to be desired from LK's end. Honestly, I kinda felt something had changed when he started focusing more on pomo and going after the so-called regressive left.

    I just wanted to say I will take what he says with greater scrutiny now, even if there is decent information on Austrian economics on there, which was the main reason why I read him. I used to be one of those right-libertarians years ago.

    Do you have any advice in particular for someone like me with no econ degree? I always feel like I'm missing something and want to learn more and more about topics I never thought I'd be getting into.

    1. Thanks for your kind comment, Penguin Pop.

      I just wanted to say I will take what he says with greater scrutiny now

      I'm glad if that's the take away from all this discussion. It's a good idea to give great scrutiny to everything (including whatever you might find in this blog).

      Do you have any advice in particular for someone like me with no econ degree?

      Well, thanks for the confidence. I'm not much of an expert on anything, really but if I can be of help, I'll be happy to.

      What kind of advice? On what subject?

    2. Probably topics like economic history and retaining a lot of info on what different economists of the past have said. I don't have any plans to actually study economics at an academic level.

      I'm more or less just interested in filling in any major knowledge gaps for my own benefit and out of interest, and so I'll feel more confident in defending my own personal beliefs. Same thing with some of the major philosophers in history that I've been interested in wanting to learn more about.

      For my actual degree, I went to a business school and graduated recently. There's a lot of paths I'm exploring right now, but sometimes feel a bit insecure and uncertain about where my life's gonna go with all the different interests I have, and I guess that's really my biggest problem right now with the 22k in student loan debt I have and some private debt I'm dealing with and struggling at the moment.

      I grew up in a poor immigrant family, so I've had to work pretty hard for much of my life against the odds and know what it's like to be disadvantaged and to have to go through a foreclosure. Being in that position was the main reason why I chose being a commuter to a state university half an hour away from my house rather than a school 3 hours away where I might have done a completely different program like mechanical or electrical engineering. I still liked what I studied, but the uncertainty lingers and I tend to overthink my past decisions on what I could have or couldn't have done differently.

      That's basically what I'm dealing with at the moment and really that's sort of what I'd be interested in hearing your perspective on these matters.

    3. It would be great if you can read William J. Barber's "A history of economic thought". It's out of print, as far as I know, but I wouldn't be surprised you could find it in second-hand book shops.

      At 266 pages (1967 edition) it's a very good introduction: it isn't excessively verbose.

      Barber carefully avoids being judgmental as he writes about Adam Smith, Malthus, Ricardo, John Stuart Mill, Marx, Marshall, and Keynes. He not only provides a synthesis of what they wrote about, but also gives a very brief overview of these guys' lives and times, which helps understand their work.

      Another great resource if you need more detailed information is the History of Economic Thought website:

      Britannica online, if you are subscribed, also offers good stuff. I'd be very careful with Wikipedia on this matter: there are all sorts of crappy stuff there, particularly in the history of economic thought.

      If you have interest in Marxism, the Marxists Internet Archive is very good:

      There are plenty of repositories containing old economics books:

      Library of Economics and Liberty

      McMaster Archive for the History of Economic Thought

      The Internet Archive

      Project Gutenberg

      There are plenty other resources, like books and such. Some of them can probably be found for free over the Internetz.

      Hope that helps!


      Good luck with your problems and in your future career.