Primary Source

Autobiography, Katsu Kokichi [Excerpt]


Katsu Kokichi (1802–1850), a middle- to lower-ranking samurai without distinction, nevertheless wrote his life story, supposedly to warn his children against his own disgraceful behavior. Yet, he brags of his mischief and rebelliousness, while relating how he dropped out of a shogunate academy, ran away from home (twice), and lived by his wits and his sword as a beggar and a hoodlum, until he was sent home and put under house arrest. The excerpt below begins with Kokichi's adoption ceremony. In Tokugawa Japan, one son, usually the oldest, inherited his father's position in the shogun's bureaucracy. A third son, such as Kokichi, had few chances for a position, unless he was adopted into a samurai household that lacked a male heir. In such a case, he was expected to marry the daughter of the adoptive household and take her name. A samurai boy's education consisted of bun-bu, the art of writing (bun) and the martial arts (bu). Kokichi excelled at the latter. He was sent to masters to learn wrestling, horse riding, and swordsmanship (kendo).


Craig, Teroko, trans. Musui's Story: The Autobiography of a Tokugawa Samurai [Musui dokugen, 1843]. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1988.

Primary Source Text

I was adopted by the Katsu family when I was seven. My age was officially given as seventeen, and the hair at the front of my head was cut off accordingly. 1 As part of the adoption procedure, 2 Ishikawa Ukon-no-shôgen, the commissioner of my unit at the kobushingumi, 3 and his assistant, Obi Daishichirô, came to the house.

"How old are you and what is your name?" Ishikawa asked.

"My name is Kokichi and I am seventeen."

Ishikawa pretended to be taken aback. "Well — for seventeen you certainly look old!" He burst out laughing.

My adoptive father's older brother, Aoki Jinbei, who served at Edo Castle as a member of the Great Guard, acted as sponsor.

Until then I had been called Kamematsu. With my adoption my name changed to Kokichi. My adoptive parents had already died, leaving behind a daughter and her grandmother. It was decided that the two would live at my father's place in Fukugawa. I was completely ignorant of these arrangements and spent my time in play.

I got into another fight over a kite, again with some boys from Mae-chô. There must have been 20 or 30. I took them on alone hitting and punching, but they finally got the better of me. I was cornered on a large rock in an open field and struck over and over with bamboo poles. My hair had fallen loose all over my face, and I was sobbing. I took out my short sword and slashed left and right. 4 But I knew I was beaten and decided then and there to commit hara-kiri. I stripped to the waist and sat down on the rock. As it so happened, a rice dealer by the name of Shirokoya was standing nearby. He talked me into giving up the idea and took me home. After this, though, all the boys in the neighborhood became my followers. I was seven at the time . . . .

When I was nine, my father told me to take judo lessons with Suzuki Seibei, a relative of the Katsu family in Yokoami-chô . . . . As I said, everyone in judo class hated me. On the day that an all-night midwinter session was to be held, we received permission from the teacher to bring food. We took a break at midnight. I had packed a lacquer box full of bean jam cakes and had been looking forward all day to this moment when we would share the food. My classmates had other plans. They got together and tied me up with an obi, 5 hoisted me to one of the rafters and began eating, even helping themselves to my cakes. So I pissed on their heads, spraying the food that had been spread out, and naturally, everything had to be thrown away. Served them right, too.

1 At the coming of age ceremony for sons of samurai, the hair at the front and on top of the head was shaved, and the hair at the back and the sides was gathered into a topknot. Katsu gave his age as seventeen because the shogunate did not allow the adoption of a male heir who was younger. [Translator's footnote]

2Hanmoto mitodoke or hanmoto aratame; procedure to acertain such facts as the nature of the deceased's illness and the authenticity of the family seal when an urgent request was made to adopt a male heir into a samurai family. Ordinarily, an heir had to be adopted before the death of the family head, but in kobushin families with low rank-stipend, posthumous adoption was allowed and a near relative asked to stand in for the deceased. [Translator's footnote]

3This is one of two labor pools to manage the unemployed retainers of the shogunate, including both able-bodied men, for whom there were not enough positions, and those who could not be employed because they were too young, too old, disabled or sick. [Translator's footnote]

4On reaching the age of discretion, samurai boys were allowed to carry short, blunt-edged swords. [Translator's footnote]

5An obi is a long thin waistband like a belt or a sash. [Translator's footnote]

How to Cite This Source

"Autobiography, Katsu Kokichi [Excerpt]," in Children and Youth in History, Item #118, (accessed August 10, 2021). Annotated by L. Halliday Piel