The first time I held a tempered steel, properly balanced katana was at a Rennaissance Festival. It was light, fluid, and vibrantly flexible – a weapon that seemed “alive” even to a city-turned-farm girl who had never touched a battle-ready blade before. As I cupped my left palm beneath the pommel and pivoted the long blade with the flick I’d seen in the movies, I experienced leverage, exhilarating speed, and the realization that if I actually wanted to, I could murder a lot of people very quickly.
That’s what it’s like to have the capability of taking a life.
Now imagine that one out of ten people you meet on the street lives with this capability, and carries the swords to realize it. Imagine that these people have all spent hours in practice fights with wooden or bamboo blades, and in honing their cutting skills with live blades. Imagine that these people are touchy about their personal honor, and not so touchy about imposing on others. Among them are good men, bad men, and every shade of man in between: scholars, incompetents, family men, drunkards, students, cowards, rich and poor.
The first person to introduce me to the concept that even the best samurai were normal human beings was Fukuzawa Yukichi, himself a samurai and skilled swordsman, who in his autobiography is not reluctant to share tales that often humorously contradict the exalted stereotype usually presented. By far my favorite episode is the night he was returning late from a party composed of students of western education (during the period when such things were vehemently unpopular) and met another young samurai in a dark street. Scared stiff, but screwing up his courage, he began to run through all sorts of potentially disastrous possible scenarios in his mind, all the while preparing himself to draw on the slightest provocation. The other man appeared to be doing likewise. Grim and threatening, both men moved out to the middle of the street and swaggered toward each other, their long swords in prominent view. Fukuzawa was even planning what sort of cut would be most effective as he came up abreast of the other samurai. They met, exchanged no words, and began to walk past each other. The minute he was behind the other’s back, Fukuzawa snatched up the skirts of his hakama and dashed off at a terrified sprint. Some distance away, not hearing sounds of pursuit, he looked back – to see the other man racing away just as fast in the opposite direction!