The Inevitable Downfall of the Samurai Class

Tylar Orion Davidson for History 340 with Dr. Harney

The collapse of the samurai class was drawn out over the entirety of the Tokugawa Shogunate (1600-1868). The Tokugawa Shogunate consolidated its power over the Japanese archipelago in the year 1600 after the battle of Sekigahara, when the army of the eastern alliance, under the command of Tokugawa Ieyasu, defeated the army of the western alliance, and brought Japan into an era of peace that it had not seen since the beginning of the Sengoku-Jidai, which began after the fall of the Ashikaga Shogunate (1336-1450) in the mid-fifteenth century. The early years of the Tokugawa Shogunate were used to consolidate the power of the Tokugawa family. The rule of the Tokugawa Shogunate was finally consolidated after Tokugawa Ieyasu defeated Toyotomi Hideyori at the siege of Osaka (1615), and peace was finally brought to Japan. After Tokugawa had consolidated power over his military rivals, he began to consolidate power over the samurai and daimyo that served him. Tokugawa began to place limits on the military practices of the samurai, which led to a loss of the warrior identity that the samurai had since the early days of their existence, when they were elite, horse-mounted, archers. The relative peace and stability of the period furthered the loss of the warrior identity, for the samurai no longer had any wars to fight, and this led the samurai to develop a distinct focus upon the aesthetics of Japanese culture. This loss of a warrior identity continued throughout the Tokugawa Shogunate, right until the very end of it. The arrival of the Americans in 1853, and the inaction of the shogun led many Japanese commoners to lose faith in the abilities of the samurai to protect the nation, and many Japanese intellectuals, such as Fukuzawa Yukichi, to view the samurai as a part of Japanese culture that impeded the Japanese path to modernization. The eventual downfall of the samurai was put into place by the restriction of their warrior identity during the Tokugawa Shogunate, which eventually led the Japanese populace lose faith in the samurai as warriors, and this led to the loss of the samurai privilege during the Meiji Restoration, all of which culminated in the Satsuma Rebellion (1877), which led to the practical and metaphorical death of the samurai as a social class in Japanese society.

It is natural for one to be compelled to think that the fall of the samurai class began in 1853, when Commodore Matthew Perry steamed into Tokyo bay, and forced the Japanese to open their country to foreign trade. This view is supported from the following quote from Matthew Perry, in which he stated that “They were armed with muskets upon which bayonets and flint-locks were observed. The guards on the left were dressed in a rather dingy, brown-colored uniform turned up with yellow, and carried old-fashioned matchlocks.”[1] The technological inferiority of the Japanese is one contributing factor that led to the downfall of the samurai, who historically fought with swords and bows, but it was not the initial spark that began this downfall. One may also believe that the downfall of the samurai began during the Genroku period (1688-1703), when the Japanese economy began to shift, and the samurai began to lose their financial privilege to the rising merchant class, which created a struggle within the rigid social hierarchy of Japan, and this is supported by George Sansom, when he states that “the growing wealth, and consequently the growing power of the townsmen caused frequent clashes between them and the samurai, whose incomes declined while they continued to assert their superior social position.”[2] However, this was not the initial factor that caused the downfall of the samurai class, but it was a result of the changing of the economy that had occurred as a result of the relative peace that Japan had experienced since the battle of Sekigahara in 1600. This battle was responsible for the rise of the Tokugawa family, and this rise established this family as the

[1] Matthew Perry. When We Landed in Japan. 1854.

[2] George Sansom. A History of Japan: 1615-1867. (Stanford: Stanford University Press). 152.

dominant military power in Japan, which led to a period of peace and stability that would last until 1868, when the downfall of the samurai class reached its climax during the Boshin Wars.

The final battle of the Sengoku-Jidai occurred in 1600 at Sekigahara, and this battle was decisive in determining the future ruler of Japan. The eastern alliance was led by Tokugawa Ieyasu, and the western alliance, who fought for the son of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, was led by Ishida Mitsunari. This battle was the climax of a power struggle that had occurred after the death of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the second of Japan’s three great unifiers. The battle of Sekigahara was a massive engagement, which followed the trends that were prevalent throughout the entire Sengoku-Jidai, due to the increased number of Ashigaru pike-men that were on the field of battle. The scale of the battle is recanted by Dickson, where he states that “the army of the league numbered 80,000 men, while that of Iyeyas could only muster 50,000.”[3] This battle was the final major engagement of the Sengoku-Jidai¸ therefore, this scale only serves to highlight the sheer importance of this battle. Warfare in Japan had experienced drastic change since the days of the Tale of the Heike and the Genpei War (1180-1185), when armies were made largely of samurai. The increased scale of the battle and the large numbers of Ashigaru meant that the samurai had taken on an officer role, and they proved to be fierce and daring leaders, which was stated by Dickson, when he stated that “none besides the general officers and some of the leading men had the courage to face the enemy at the first onset.”[4] The leading men of these armies were entirely made up of samurai, and this courage that these men exerted at Sekigahara was reflective of samurai culture in general, for the samurai was expected to be a fearless warrior, even in death. The fact that these men are the only ones to face the enemy head on, according to Dickson,

[3] Walter Dickson. History of Japan. (New York: Peter Fenelon Collier & Son). 169.

[4] Dickson. History of Japan. 169.

further highlights the warrior identity that the samurai held so dear. The samurai were regarded as the fiercest warriors in Japan, and their ferocity on the field of battle helped secure Tokugawa Ieyasu’s power over Japan, but the same ferocity that the samurai used to win wars was placed under severe limitations by Ieyasu, as he sought to consolidate his family’s control over Japan.

In the fifteen years between the battle of Sekigahara and the death of Ieyasu, Ieyasu began to consolidate his control over the Japanese islands. George Sansom states that “there was no open revolt requiring military measures of suppression, but there was a degree of covert hostility which he [Ieyasu] must somehow reduce.”[5] Ieyasu set about eliminating any possibility of revolt, which was done through a strict regulation of the practices of the martial class, on which Sansom states that “the study of literature and the practice of the military arts must be pursued side by side. (“On the left hand learning, on the right hand the use of weapons).”[6] Ieyasu was limiting the martial practices of the samurai in an effort to prevent any form of military uprising, but this was in a direct conflict with the identity that the samurai class had expressed for centuries. Sansom states, in his book The Western World and Japan, that the samurai were “a class of fighting men which prided itself upon courage, disregard for life, and contempt for material wealth.”[7] The traits that were described above characterize the samurai as a class that was solely devoted to martial skill, for they prided themselves on their courage and disregard for life, and Ieyasu was essentially placing a limit upon this aspect of their culture. The contempt for material wealth suggests that the samurai tended to stray away from the non-martial aspects of Japanese culture, such as gardening and poetry, but the new laws passed by Ieyasu were stating

[5] George Sansom. A History of Japan: 1334-1615. (Stanford: Stanford University Press). 399.

[6] Sansom. A History of Japan: 1615-1867. 7.

[7] George Sansom. The Western World and Japan: A Study in the Interaction of European and Asiatic Cultures. (London: The Cresset Press). 183.

that this aesthetic aspect of the samurai must be placed on an equal pedestal with the martial aspects that the samurai had expressed since their conception as a warrior class. The martial identity rose from “Japan’s long history of feudal warfare which…had naturally brought to high esteem the martial values [of the samurai].”[8] Ieyasu was more than aware of the abilities that the samurai held in combat, and he had sought to limit any form of revolt that may destroy his family’s power, and return Japan to the warfare of the Sengoku-Jidai.

The basis for these laws was to preserve the social order, which was a very Confucian idea, and the laws passed by Ieyasu led to a strengthening of the social hierarchy. The laws that Ieyasu passed that limited the martial practices of the samurai were described by George Sansom as a “rational policy, since the object of the rulers of Japan was to safeguard the existing order, which depended upon the dominance of an arm-bearing class.”[9] Despite this claim of upholding the rule of the samurai, the laws of Ieyasu severely limited any form of power that they had still held, for the primary aspect of the identity of the samurai was being limited. The government of Ieyasu was able to further this consolidation of the social hierarchy through the privilege that the samurai had in the eyes of the law. One Tokugawa era official stated that “all offences are to be punished in accordance with social status.”[10] This directly expresses the privilege that the samurai held in the eyes of the law, to which Sansom further states that “an examination of the penalties enforced under the Tokugawa shows that this principle was observed.”[11] This privilege was won by the samurai through their prowess on the battlefield, and it was this prowess that saw the martial aspect of the samurai become limited. This limitation of the samurai’s martial identity

[8]Sansom. The Western World and Japan. 183.

[9] George Sansom. Japan: A Short Cultural History. (New York:  Appleton-Century-Crofts, Inc). 500.

[10] Sansom. Japan. 463.

[11] Sansom. Japan. 463.

was instrumental in the solidification of the hierarchy of Japan at the time, because the shogun was empowering a warrior class that had no capacity to practice their martial skills, meaning that there would be little cause for any revolt that would overthrow the shogun.

The final bit of conflict came to Japan in the final years of Ieyasu’s life, when his forces laid siege to Osaka, where Toyotomi Hideyori, the last rebel against the rule of Tokugawa, was hiding. The siege was a classical siege by any medieval standards, for it began in late 1614, when “a force of 70,000 men under [Tokugawa] Hidetada surrounded the castle.”[12] The siege persisted well into 1615, when the Tokugawa forces were finally able to break the siege by overcoming Hideyori’s forces on the outside of the castle walls, which occurred on June 2, 1615, and the following day, Ieyasu took the castle. On June 4th, “Hideyori committed suicide,”[13] and this officially marked the end of any formal armed resistance against the shogun and his forces. The defeat of Hideyori at Osaka saw Ieyasu complete his goal of returning Japan to a period of peace and stability, but this battle would mark the beginning of the total decline of the samurai as a warrior class, for this was the last bit of conflict that Japan would face until the year 1868, during the Boshin War and the Meiji Restoration.

As the Tokugawa Shogunate continued, the practicality of the samurai as a warrior was lost due to the peace that Japan faced. William Beasley states that “peace made the samurai less needed as a soldier…but the nature of the new domains made him all the more important as an administrator.”[14] Beasley goes onto state that “in every castle-town there was a multitude of posts to be filled…and all were filled by Samurai of a specified rank.”[15] Here one can see that

[12] Sansom. History of Japan: 1334-1615. 398.

[13] Sansom. History of Japan:1334-1615. 398.

[14] William. G. Beasley. The Modern History of Japan. (New York: Praeger Publishers). 9.

[15] Beasley. The Modern History of Japan. 9.

the peace and stability that was brought to Japan was only the starting point for the loss of the warrior identity of the samurai, and the bureaucratic systems that were put into place were a further contributor to the loss of the warrior identity of the samurai. Throughout Japanese history, the samurai held a monopoly on advanced education, meaning that the samurai were the only class of people that were able to preform bureaucratic tasks. These bureaucratic tasks soon became the sole occupier of the samurai’s time, and this eventually saw the samurai go from a warrior class to a bureaucratic class in two centuries. One famous Japanese scholar, named Yamaga Soko stated that “among major matters [of the samurai] there are…rites and festivals…the control of feudal states…and the disposition of suits and appeals among the four classes of people.”[16] This statement by Yamaga offers no mention of any form of warrior aspect in the “major matters” of a samurai, which shows how the increasingly bureaucratic nature that the samurai adopted during the Tokugawa Shogunate was one of the factors that was directly responsible for the decline of the warrior identity of the samurai. This statement by Yamaga is also in direct contrast to the previous quote by George Sansom, in which he stated that the samurai were “a class of fighting men which prided itself upon courage, disregard for life, and contempt for material wealth.”[17] This contrast between the quote of Sansom and Yamaga shows how the relative peace and stability of the Tokugawa Shogunate led the samurai to stray away from their warrior backgrounds towards ones that suited the peace that occupied Japan during that time. This straying from their warrior identity caused no immediate problems for the samurai for most of the Tokugawa Shogunate, but the problems with this loss of a warrior identity came to full fruition when Matthew Perry landed in Japan in 1853.

[16] Beasley. The Modern History of Japan. 10.

[17] Sansom. The Western World and Japan. 183.

When Commodore Matthew Perry sailed into Edo Bay in 1853, the British were fresh off a victory over the Chinese in the First Opium War (1839-1842), and many Japanese people were fearful of this same fate befalling Japan. However, the collapse of the Tokugawa Shogunate and the samurai class as a whole was already beginning prior to the arrival of Commodore Perry. The Japanese economy at the time was based around the trading and selling of rice, and this economy began to collapse during the end of the eighteenth century due to an increase in the output of rice, and a drop in the price of it, which is supported by a claim from George Sansom that “the immediate cause of their decline was the breakdown of the rice economy.”[18] The decline immediately effected the samurai, and led to a large amount of unrest from the samurai themselves, and the commoners were soon to follow. As the nineteenth century progressed, the peasants of Japan began to grow weary of the inaction of the Shogun, and the country erupted into “rice riots, known as uchikiwashi or ‘smashings,’ and they had been common enough since the early eighteenth century.”[19] These rice riots were largely ignored for they often lacked the scale to warrant any military response from the Shogun, but the ones that occurred within the last three decades of the Shogunate were extremely detrimental to the rule of the Shogunate. Sansom goes on to state that “the one that took place in 1837 had a peculiar significance, in that it was led by samurai.”[20] This revolt led by the samurai began to show the beginnings of a breakdown of the rigid social hierarchy of Japan, for the vassals [samurai] were beginning to rebel against their lords [the Shogun]. These revolts began to show the weakness of the ruling Shogunate, and this is supported by a statement by Sansom when he states that “what was remarkable about this rising was the incompetence of officials and soldiers. They had ample notice of the plot and yet

[18] Sansom. Japan. 471.

[19] Sansom. The Western World and Japan. 242.

[20] Sansom. The Western World and Japan. 242.

they allowed the rioters a free hand to burn the city for several hours.[21] This incompetence of the officials was compounded by the fact that the garrison leaders of the city of Osaka held no formal plan for dealing with a military uprising, which further shows the loss of a military identity of the Samurai. The response to a riot such as this in the early days of the Shogunate, during the rule of Tokugawa Ieyasu, would have been a swift and brutal because the samurai still held a large respect for the martial aspect of their identity, and the generals still had practical experience in dealing with this type of conflict. The weakness of the Shogunate continued to show throughout the remainder of the first half of the nineteenth century, and this led the western domains of Choshu and Satsuma to revolt against the rule of the Shogun.

The Boshin War (1868) began on January 3, 1868 when “troops under the command of Saigo Takamori seized the palace gates [after which] a council was summoned [and] a decision was also taken to restore administrative responsibility to the emperor.”[22] The restoration of the emperor marked the beginning of the downfall of the samurai as a class. The restoration of the emperor and the downfall of the Shogunate was the event that thrust Japan into the modern age, and one of the first pieces of Japan to modernize was the military. The modernization of the Japanese military was viewed by the early Meiji officials as a tool for securing Japan’s sovereignty, and as a tool to use to maintain domestic order. This is supported by a claim from James Crowley, in which he states that “Omura Masajiro phrased the initial task [of the military] to ‘first prepare against civil disturbances, later, to prepare against foreign invasion.”[23] The military of Omura was to have “the commoners constitute the main body of troops, and the

[21] Sansom. The Western World and Japan. 242.

[22] Beasley. The Modern History of Japan. 96.

[23] James Crowley. “Formation of the Meiji Military Establishment” in Imperial Japan: 1800-1945. (New York: Random House Inc). 166.

samurai to furnish the officers”[24] Here one can see that the samurai were still regarded by many early Japanese government officials, including Saigo Takamori, as the most effective leaders for a new, modern army. However, many Japanese had not forgotten the events that had only occurred three decades earlier, in which the samurai were constantly defeated due to their lack of military training, and it was this lack of military skill that led the government to designate the first modern military of Japan as a “modest militia and an officers corps open to men of all talent.”[25] This decision by the Meiji government to open the officer corps of their military to men from all social classes, provided that the men had the skill, meant that the samurai had lost their monopoly on military command, and this was one of many blows that led the samurai, as a class, to continue on the decline. This decline became a reality as a result of the legislation passed by Tokugawa Ieyasu, which placed limits on the martial practices of the samurai.

The loss of the prestige and privilege was extremely disturbing to many members of Japanese society, most notably Saigo Takamori, the famed last samurai. Saigo Takamori hailed from the city of Kagoshima, in the domain of Satsuma, which was controlled by the Shimazu clan. Saigo had led the forces of Choshu and Satsuma to victory in the Boshin War, but the increasing amount of imperial control that resulted from his victories began to cause the samurai class to collapse even faster. One of the first steps in consolidating imperial control over Japan was to strengthen the central authority of Japan (the emperor) and this was accomplished through the dissolution of the Daimyo.  The importance of strengthening a central authority in Japan is highlighted by the following statement that was drafted by the Daimyo of Satsuma, Choshu, Tosa and Hizen, in which they stated that “two things are essential to the Emperor’s

[24] Crowley. “Formation of the Meiji Military Establishment”. 166.

[25] Crowley. Formation of the Meiji Military Establishment”. 167.

administration. There must be one central body of government, and one universal and integral authority.”[26] The government of Japan prior to the reestablishment of imperial authority in 1868 was dependent upon the loyalty of some 280 domains to the shogun, and this essentially meant that authority in Japan was vested in 280 Daimyo, who were strong-armed into doing the shogun’s bidding, and this system could not persist in the eyes of the new imperial government. On July 25, 1869, the Daimyo were forced to surrender their land from an imperial edict, on which Michael Montgomery states that “all the Daimyo were ordered to surrender their registers and in return  were to stay on as ‘governors’ of their han at the same time being raised…to a new order of nobility.”[27] The dissolution of the domains meant that the power of the samurai was diminished, while the imperial government continued to increase their power, and the imperial government continued down this path of destroying the samurai class, for many modernizers of Japan saw that the samurai posed no value to society anymore, because of the lack of warfare that the country faced.

The samurai were “growing increasingly resistive to the direction that the new order was taking,”[28] and this is not anything shocking, for the rights and privileges that the samurai had enjoyed for centuries were being revoked by the government that the samurai were loyal to. Montgomery states that,

“Their resentment sprang from three sources: first, a loss of stature brought about by the simplification of their complex hierarchy…secondly, a loss of income resulting from the review of stipends, which led to their reduction…and thirdly, the abandonment of the principle of joi, evinced by the granting of imperial audiences to foreign envoys.”[29]

[26] Michael Montgomery. Imperialist Japan: The Yen to Dominate. (New York: St.Martin’s Press). 87.

[27] Montgomery. Imperialist Japan. 87.

[28] Montgomery. Imperialist Japan. 90.

[29] Montgomery. Imperialist Japan. 90.

The first concern arose due to the abandonment of the centuries old hierarchy that Japan had observed, and essentially saw the samurai lose their privilege and prestige in the eyes of the Japanese modernizers, and the Japanese legal system itself. The loss of the stipends saw many samurai descend into poverty, and many samurai were in poverty prior to the loss of their stipends, therefore they fell further from fulfilling the image that many people had of the samurai, which led to the social collapse of the class, for they had lost the social image that they had once held. The third concern came about because the samurai were viewed as the sworn protectors of Japan and the emperor, and the government was allowing the ‘foreign barbarians’ to have envoys with the imperial court, which implies that the samurai had failed in their job as the defenders of Japan. This meant that many Japanese saw no point for the samurai anymore, for they had failed to protect Japan in 1853 from the Americans and have failed to protect Japan from the encroaching western powers, meaning that the samurai were no longer effective in their military role. This loss of faith in the samurai was a direct result of the gradual loss of the warrior identity that the samurai had held, and this created unrest from many samurai and led men like Saigo Takamori to lead a revolt against the new Japanese government.            

The Satsuma rebellion began in 1877, when troops under the command of Saigo Takamori “seized an imperial arsenal at Kagoshima.”[30] The samurai were constantly driven back by the new imperial army, and the rebellion was finally crushed in September of that same year. The men who fought in this rebellion were the true “last samurais” of Japan, which is reflected in the following statement by Mark Ravina, in which he states that “on the evening of September 23, the rebels celebrated their imminent deaths. Under a bright moon they drank sake, sang

[30] Montgomery. Imperialist Japan. 95.

songs, and exchanged poems about honor, loyalty, and death.”[31] The last night that many of these samurai spent alive was filled with references to the core values of the samurai: Honor, Loyalty, and Death. The samurai who lived prior to the founding of the Tokugawa Shogunate valued honor amongst all things. They also held an undying loyalty to their lords, to the extent that many samurai would commit seppuku upon the death of their lord. Death was seen as a fact of life for the samurai, and they were prepared to die in battle, for that was the way of the samurai. This is directly in line with the earlier quote from George Sansom, in which he stated that the samurai held a complete contempt for aesthetic qualities and prepared his whole life for death. The ancient values of the samurai held no power against the modern Japanese military, and his sizeable army was reduced to forty, and the death of Saigo is perhaps the most famous samurai death that ever occurred. The story states that “Saigo composed himself and prepared for seppuku… Saigo calmly faced east, and bent his head. Beppu quickly severed his head with a single, clean stroke.[32] The death of Saigo Takamori is a popular piece of Japanese folklore, but this story of his death, be it real or dramatized, shows that Saigo was the true “last samurai” and he lived like a samurai and died like one.            

The collapse of the Samurai class was a drawn-out process that occurred over the course of the two and a half centuries of Tokugawa rule over Japan. Tokugawa Ieyasu secured his position as the most powerful man in Japan after the defeat of Mistunari at the battle of Sekigahara in 1600, and he was extremely determined to keep his family in power. He began by passing a series of laws that limited the marital practices of the samurai, by encouraging book learning as well as the practice of martial skills. This led to a gradual decline in the martial

[31] Mark Ravina. The Last Samurai: The Life and Battles of Saigo Takamori. (Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, Inc). 4.

[32] Ravina. The Last Samurai. 4.

aspect of a samurai’s identity. The loss of the martial identity of the samurai was furthered by the increasing number of bureaucratic positions that were needed as the Tokugawa Shogunate began to centralize, and the natural candidates for these positions were the only highly educated men in Japan, the samurai. The continued loss of the warrior aspect of a samurai’s identity was not a massive problem for the class until the opening of Japan in 1853 by Commodore Matthew Perry. The samurai were viewed as the protectors of Japan, and the fact that they let the western powers interfere with Japanese affairs led many Japanese people to lose faith in the samurai as the protectors of Japan, which led many to see no purpose in their continued existence. The collapse of the samurai class was further influenced by their loss of the monopoly on military leadership that came at the beginning of Japan’s modernization, as well as the loss of their stipends which furthered their poverty and the anger of the samurai at the government. This anger at the government culminated in the Satsuma rebellion of 1877, which saw the forces of Saigo Takamori get defeated by the modern Japanese army. It is important for one to acknowledge that the downfall of the samurai was a “slow burn” that occurred over the course of two and a half centuries. The consolidation of power by Tokugawa Ieyasu in the early seventeenth century led to the passing of laws that caused the warrior identity of the samurai to gradually disappear. This gradual loss was exaggerated by the increasing number of bureaucratic positions that were opened as a result of the peace that Japan was experiencing at the time. The arrival of Matthew Perry in 1853 was the factor that had given the final push for the downfall of the samurai to actually occur, but this push would not have been possible without the passing of legislation in the early Tokugawa period that led to the decline of the warrior identity of the samurai class.

Word Count: 4414


Beasley, W.G. The Modern History of Japan. New York: Praeger Publishers., 1974.

Crowley, James. “Formation of the Meiji Military Establishment” in Imperial Japan:1800-1945, Edited by Jon Livingston, Joe Moore, and Felicia Oldfather. New York: Random House Inc., 1973.

Dickson, Walter G. Japan. New York: Peter Fenelon Collier & Son., 1898.

Montgomery, Michael. Imperialist Japan: The Yen to Dominate. New York: St. Martin’s Press., 1987.

Perry, Matthew. When We Landed in Japan in The World’s Story: A History of the World in Story, Song and Art, Edited by Eva March Tappan. Boston: Houghton Mifflin., 1914.

Ravina, Mark. The Last Samurai: The Life and Battles of Saigo Takamori. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2004.

Sansom, George. A History of Japan: 1334-1615. Stanford: Stanford University Press., 1961.

Sansom, George. A History of Japan: 1615-1867. Stanford: Stanford University Press., 1963.

Sansom, George. Japan: A Short Cultural History. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, Inc., 1943.

Sansom, George B. The Western World and Japan: A Study in the Interaction of European and Asiatic Cultures. London: The Cresset Press., 1950.

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