The Transformation of a Tokugawa Samurai - Armstrong Undergraduate Journal of History

The Transformation of a Tokugawa Samurai

Armstrong State University

Throughout one’s life there are defining moments that can transform a person’s character. Whether each moment is positive or negative is irrelevant, whereas one’s reaction to the situation is what is important. It is never too late for someone to change their character, whether influenced by people, religion, or experience; one may be transformed at any moment. The novel, Musui’s Story: The Autobiography of a Tokugawa Samurai, captures the life of a samurai during the Tokugawa period. In this book one can observe the rather complicated life of Katsu Kokichi, but more importantly his transformation. Katsu experienced many different challenges and triumphs throughout his life, but the greatest incident that happened to him was when an old man shared his wisdom with him that changed Katsu.

Book cover of Musui's Story
Book cover of Musui's Story

As a child, Katsu engaged in different activities. Yet, what remained constant was his ability to get into trouble. During Katsu’s school years, his mindset was, “I hated studying, and everyday slipped out through the fence and into the Sakura riding ground, where I spent hours riding. At most I learned to read five or six pages of the Greater Learning” (19). This mindset portrayed Katsu's misbehaving demeanor and bitter attitude towards education. Also, he despised his grandmother, who took care of him the majority of his childhood while his father was busy with work. The relationship that he had with his grandmother was illustrated in, “She was nasty to me, too, and nagged and scolded day after day. I would lose my temper and fight back with every insult I could think of” (14). Katsu’s childhood was rooted in mischief, fights, and self-centeredness, leading the reader to conclude that that was what his future anticipated.

The beginning of Katsu’s transformation started shortly after his two attempts at running away. When Katsu appeared back home the second time, a cage awaited his presence. Because of Katsu’s misbehavior, Katsu’s father punished him to live in a cage for a set amount of time. Since Katsu had abundant time, one day his thoughts lead to, “I also reflected on my past conduct and came to the conclusion that whatever had happened had been my fault. I taught myself to read and write and spent hours poring over military manuals” (68). This event in his life marked the beginning of Katsu’s change of character and sustaining change deals with moral issues, like responsibility. Even though Katsu was a talented swordsman/fighter, he did not limit his lifestyle to only those activities. Katsu gained respect and followers through his fighting abilities, but began to use his tongue to settle issues.

Katsu’s biggest transformation occurred through a comment that an old man said to him, “People are wont to repay a good deed with ingratitude. Well, why don’t you be different and try returning a good deed for every act of ill will” (73)? After this comment Katsu’s outlook on life shifted, which produced many benefits, “not only did my family situation improve, but even my mean old grandmother began acting more decently” (73). This mindset became the foundation for Katsu ’s life and he used it in his encounters with others acting as if he had their problem himself when others needed help. The statement that the old man said could possess Christian undertones alluding to the scripture Romans 12:17, “Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody.” Romans 12: 17-21 portrays the overall message that the old man gave Katsu, in that people should not act on the instinct of revenge, but rather act in love, so that the situation will improve.

Katsu changed how he responded to situations in his life, because he remembered and lived by the old man’s advice. There were many occasions that followed his transformation that proved his character shift, like when his friend was mistreated by Hyogo and himself insulted. Instead of fighting or injuring Hyogo, Katsu “walked off, taking my friends with me” (75). Before, Katsu would have fought or instigated the issue. Now he decided to walk away from the event, rather than make it worse, since Hyogo was drunk. Another example that highlights Katsu ’s character change was when Otake initiated a fight, but then backed down. Katsu, “decided to make peace” (79). This issue was difficult for Katsu to settle, because he had a strict ideal of justice. Under the wishes of the people for him to forgive Otake, Katsu conceded, again living by the old man’s words.

Katsu discovered through his experiences what someone ought to do and what they ought not to do. His main motivation for writing this was, “take my story as a lesson” (9). If Katsu never changed his character, he would have had no merit to write a book. One can observe through his book how his outlook on life changed by, “I always put giving to others first, helping neighbors as a matter of course and those in need according to who they were” (97). During Katsu’s life he always helped others before himself, yet he was constantly taken care of, which could raise the question of divine intervention. Whether divine intervention was the case or mere happenstance, Katsu’s transformation teaches people that their focus should be on others and not themselves.

About the author

Charles Halton Thomson, a fourth year student in the History Department of Armstrong State University. He is a member of Phi Alpha Theta.

Recommended citation

Charles Halton Thomson, “The Transformation of a Tokugawa Samurai,” Armstrong Undergraduate Journal of History 1, no. 1 (Spring 2011).


Katsu K?kichi. Musui's Story: The Autobiography of a Tokugawa Samurai. Translated by Teruko Craig. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1991.

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