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The samurai of old is extinct. Bushido, the “way of the warrior,” is no more. It embraced war, selflessness and death. The moral code that shapes us today, based on peace, self-interest and self-preservation, could not be more different. A samurai’s courage was heroic but seems in retrospect scarcely sane in its pursuit of death. It is as though death were our natural state and life a mere obstacle blocking the way to it.

Not just any death. A samurai sought quality death. The virtue of virtues was loyalty. To sacrifice one’s life in the service of one’s lord was to be blessed indeed.

Osaka novelist Ihara Saikaku (1642-93) was supreme in portraying passions. Two in particular stand out for their intensity: loyalty and love — with avarice a close third.

Best known today for tales of love, Saikaku also wrote “Tales of Samurai Honor” (1688), set mostly in the centuries of almost constant civil warfare that preceded his own peaceful Edo Period (1603-1867). We enter with him into a state of mind, a way of thinking, that is a baffling reminder of how infinitely vast the range is of possible responses to the challenge of being human.

A samurai is forever confronting death. Peace offers no respite. An occasion to lay down one’s life may arise at any moment. One fails to seize it at the cost of indelible and unbearable shame. Seizing it requires unremitting readiness.

Our time too respects loyalty, but not primarily. We say right comes first. Loyalty to evil is itself evil; to error, mistaken; to delusion, deluded. The samurai made no such distinctions. He — or she — was loyal to him — rarely her — whose rank in the feudal hierarchy demanded it. Loyalty was unquestionable and unquestioned, unflinching, blind.

One of Saikaku’s tales is of a pleasure trip gone horribly wrong. It is 1570 or thereabouts. Muramaru, the young son of the lord of Settsu province, today’s Hyogo Prefecture, was clamoring for an excursion to the far north. A high-ranking retainer named Shikibu was ordered to lead the expedition. The numerous party included Shikibu’s only son, Katsutaro, and another boy, Tanzaburo, entrusted by his father, a fellow retainer, to Shikibu’s care.

It was the rainy season. Rain pelted, wind howled. The party on horseback came to a river. It raged and surged. Never mind, cried young lord Muramaru, scornful of danger. Shikibu pleaded for caution. Why not, he urged, lodge at the post station on this side of the river and cross in the morning? Muramaru, “young and high-spirited,” would have none of it. He was the lord. His word was law.

Muramaru crossed safely; likewise Katsutaro. Tanzaburo, alas, was drowned. “Shikibu was overcome with confusion and grief” — how would he face the boy’s father?

“He thought for a while and then summoned his son. ‘Tanzaburo’s father entrusted his son’s safety to me,’ he said, ‘but I let him die. If you remain alive, I will not be able to fulfill my duty to (our lord) and preserve my honor as a samurai. And so you yourself must die at once.’”

We read this and gasp in astonishment. What follows is more astonishing still: “Katsutaro, with true samurai spirit, showed not the slightest hesitation. He turned back, dove into the seething waves, and was never seen again.”

Small wonder if these tales of Saikaku, breathing defiance and transcendence of natural human limitations, veer occasionally into the supernatural. In one story two samurai seal their friendship by arranging for their children to marry. That the children are not consulted goes without saying. They are not even told. Shortly afterward, the father of the groom-to-be is murdered. It’s a cowardly ambush, a thuggish settling of an unjust grudge. It cries for revenge. The victim’s son, Kamenoshin, is 19. Fiercely determined, having obtained his lord’s permission, he sets forth.

A summons from his late father’s friend stops him in his tracks. Informed of the betrothal, he accepts the news without comment, and proceeds on his way.

Two years of feverish searching uncover the culprit at last. But the avenger is alone and his prey accompanied. The boy is getting the worst of it. Fighting with all his waning strength, he prepares for death. Suddenly his opponents “mysteriously began to stagger backward as if their hair was being pulled.” So it was — by his bride, in bed, in a dream.

The boy triumphs, the marriage is consummated, the couple live happily ever after. It is one of Saikaku’s rare happy endings.

A samurai youth “as lovely as a spray of plum blossoms,” in the 12th century when this tale is set, would naturally draw the erotic attentions of his lord, as the boy Umemaru did, until he came of age, and then it was time for him to marry. Word reached him of a peerless beauty named Kogin, 14 years old and, as it happened, madly in love with him, though she had never seen him, nor he her.

The domain matchmaker approached the girl’s father — who, to his surprise, was oddly hesitant. That the boy was worthy and more than worthy, he admitted — but, he said, Umemaru, samurai to the core and duty-bound to his lord, would surely commit seppuku should the lord die. Then his daughter would be left a widow. It gave him pause.

“This was a rather faint-hearted speech for a samurai,” Saikaku tells us, and on second thought indeed, the father reconsidered. The match took place, and “after their marriage their love grew even deeper.”

The father’s worst fear came to pass. The lord fell ill, and died. Umemaru explained to Kogin his resolve to follow him in death. Kogin received the news with indifference. True, as a samurai wife she was schooled to iron self-control; still, Umemaru was disconcerted — more so when she said blandly, “After you are gone, I will trust to luck and look for another husband.”

His seppuku was immediately followed by hers. The note she left behind explained her odd behavior: “I spoke coldly and faithlessly in order to anger my husband, so that he could die without any regret at leaving me.”

This is the third of three parts on love and loyalty in Japan. Michael Hoffman’s latest book is “Cipangu, Golden Cipangu: Essays in Japanese History.”

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