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History Professor's Japanese Heritage Keeps Samurai Course Cutting-Edge

(Posted November 24, 2003)

HUNTINGDON, Pa. -- Say the word ?samurai? to most Americans, and they immediately conjure up images of John Belushi destroying a ?Saturday Night Live? set, or Richard Chamberlain as the Caucasian hero in ?Shogun.? In reality, according to Juniata College history professor Douglas Stiffler, samurai warriors are much more than sword-wielding action heroes.

Stiffler?s spring-semester history course, ?Samurai Legends and Lives,? is designed as a freshman history seminar. ?The idea is to present a historical topic that will get freshman excited and perhaps inspire them to become history majors,? Stiffler says, smiling.

?We look at samurai from a variety of angles,? says Stiffler, assistant professor of history at Juniata. ?We examine how Zen Buddhism deeply influenced the samurai, how the code of bushido -- the way of the warrior -- developed, and discuss how women fit into samurai culture.?

Indeed, Stiffler reports that incoming freshmen are often very familiar with Japanese or samurai culture, through anime films and comic books, popular movies such as the upcoming Tom Cruise epic ?The Last Samurai,? (scheduled to open Dec. 5) and World War II films. ?The goal of the course is to learn about Japanese culture and how it has changed and continues to change,? he says.

The course covers the origins of samurai in the 9th and 10th centuries A.D. to the end of the samurai era during the Meiji Restoration in the 1870s. The Tom Cruise film, which focuses on a Civil War veteran who teaches the shogun forces modern warfare, is set in the Meiji Restoration period.

?My area of expertise is actually modern China, but I also love Japan and find that this course is fascinating and energizing,? Stiffler says.

Samurai culture also is a favorite topic for Stiffler, who is one-eighth Japanese. The professor?s great-great-great grandfather, Katsu Kokichi (1802-1850), was a samurai. In fact, the class uses Kokichi?s diary, ?Musui?s Story? (pronounced Moo-sue-ee) as a text for the history class. ?He tells an interesting story because he came up from simple beginnings,? Stiffler says. ?His autobiography is a famous samurai document because it is written as a testament to his descendents, advising those who read it not to become like him.?

?Musui?s Story? is important, Stiffler explains, because Katsu Kokichi was not a scholar or administrator, but rather a lower-rank samurai who scraped together a living in Edo (now known as Tokyo). Here is a description of Kokichi?s life from the book?s editor Teruko Craig: ?Unable to find official employment in his adult years, he bought and sold swords. He frequented the pleasure quarters. He brawled in the streets. He lied and stole.?

Katsu Kokichi?s son, Katsu Kaishu (Stiffler?s great-great grandfather), also was a samurai early in life, but later rose to become the head of the Japanese navy and the first captain of a Japanese vessel to sail to the United States.

In addition to studying the life of Kokichi, the students watch a film about samurai culture and read several plays, including a famous story called ?The 47 Ronin.? Students are also expected to complete a final paper or presentation. Last year, a student created an entire set of samurai body armor and another created a ?manga,? or Japanese comic book, centered on a samurai story.

?Most of the students find samurai values very familiar, such as loyalty,? Stiffler says. ?This is the way history is, some things are universal to our experience and some things are going to be very strange.?

Contact John Wall at wallj@juniata.edu or (814) 641-3132 for more information.