Samurai Story

Many Japanese folks like to brag that they're descended from Samurai stock. The Samurai were the warrior class in feudal, pre-modern Japan. They started out as fighting men. But they evolved into a ruling or noble class, if you will. They were the only group who were allowed to carry swords and other weapons. Many were effete administrators and oppressive landowners. They did no real work other than to wage war or serve as bodyguards and lived off the forced tributes of peasants. Some Samurai were aristocrats, much like the lords and ladies of feudal Europe. Other Samurai were mere foot soldiers, known as Ashigari.

Prior to 1600, there was constant warfare between the lords and overlords of feudal Japan. Fields and forests were strewn with dead soldiers from hundreds of battles. A decisive battle in 1600 at Sekigahara between two powerful overlords were Ishida of Western Japan and Tokugawa of Eastern Japan. Tokugawa was victorious. He established a powerful military dynasty that lasted from 1600 to 1868 when the isolationist regime was finally forced to open up the country to Western powers. Commodore Matthew C. Perry of the U.S. Navy set the change in motion in 1853 by threatening to bombard the Japanese unless he was allowed to deliver a letter from President Fillmore to the Shogun.

Where did we fit in all this? Originally, I had thought that my family line could be traced back to Sekigahara. However, I've discovered that the family history goes back a lot further than that to the 12th century. The civil war that I thought my ancestors were involved in was not Sekigahara, but rather the Gempei War between the Minamoto (Genji) and the Taira (Heike) clans. The Genji won, but unfortunately our ancestors were on the losing side. The outlook wasn't very good for defeated warriors. If they were captured alive, they would probably be tortured and killed. They could opt to commit harakiri (suicide). Or they could "head for the hills." Guess which one my ancestors picked? They weren't stupid. For the next 700 plus years, they blended into the countryside and lived as peasants. Well, so much for my proud Samurai roots.

Our family name was probably not Kaku originally. The first character Ka, is derived from the ancient province of Kaga, which today is more or less Ishikawa prefecture in central Japan. The second character ku is a shortened form of the verb kuru, which means "to come". So the name could mean "to come from Kaga". To escape detection and capture, my ancestors disguised their identity with this obscure name, Kaku, that only hinted of their home province of Kaga.

I conjecture that the Gempei War may have something to do with the fact that our family had been living in the northern part of Kyushu for generations before the emigration to America. Ishikawa prefecture in Honshu is several hundred kilometers north, so one might ask why our ancestors settled in Kyushu. It might be because the Battle of Dannoura, the decisive sea battle of the Gempei War was fought in the Strait of Shimonoseki just north of Kyushu in 1185. The defeat at Dannoura ended the Taira's (Heike's) bid for control of Japan. I don't know whether some of our forebearers swam or drifted to shore. Or perhaps they were involved in a nearby land battle.

Is this story true? Or is it a family myth? I'll never really know. There is a document kept by distant relatives in the village of Nago in Kyushu that is said to be a record of our family's history. It is written in an ancient form of Japanese that only a classical Japanese scholar can read. It would be interesting to know if the document is authentic.

A Japanese friend of mine thought that the story is plausible, because of the unusualness of the combination of Kanji characters used in the our last name.