[:it]Japan History: I Samurai[:en]Japan History: Samurai[:ja]Japan History: Samurai[:]

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I Samurai

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Il nome Samurai deriva dal verbo saburau che vuol dire “servire” o “tenersi a lato”, letteralmente “colui che serve”. In giapponese, durante il periodo Heian (794-1185), si pronunciava saburapi e più tardi saburai.

Altro nome con cui era conosciuto il samurai è bushi (武士). Questo termine appare per la prima volta nel  Shoku Nihongi (続日本紀, 797 d.C.), un antico documento giapponese racchiuso in quaranta volumi. Esso raccoglie le più importanti decisioni di stato prese dalla corte imperiale tra il 697 d.C. e il 791 d.C. . In una parte del libro si dice: “I samurai sono coloro che formano i valori della nazione”.

Secondo il libro Gli ideali del samurai di William Scott Wilson, le parole bushi e samurai sono diventate sinonimi alla fine del XII secolo. Wilson esplora a fondo le origini della parola  “guerriero” nella cultura giapponese senza tralasciare i caratteri kanji con cui viene scritto. Egli afferma che bushi in realtà si traduce con “l’uomo che ha la capacità di mantenere la pace, con la forza militare o letteraria”.

Saburai è stato sostituito da samurai agli inizi dell’era moderna, alla fine del periodo Azuchi-Momoyama (1573–1603) e agli inizi del periodo Edo del tardo XVI e XVII secolo.

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I Samurai servivano i daimyō, feudatari locali che rispondevano allo shogun. Quando questo moriva o ne perdeva la fiducia, il samurai diventava Rōnin, ovvero “uomo onda”, inteso come “libero da vincoli”.

Il bushidō,  il codice d’onore dei samurai, prevedeva che per espiare la propria colpa e riacquistare l’onore perduto si dovesse ricorrere alla pratica dello harakiri, che significa “tagliare il ventre” . L’harakiri rappresenta la parte culminante della pratica del suicidio rituale denominato seppuku, attraverso lo sventramento del ventre con la spada corta wakizashi. Il venir meno a questi principi causava il disonore del guerriero che diventava un rōnin appunto, ossia un samurai errante, alla deriva, senza onore né dignità.

Il significato della parola ronin assumeva dunque un carattere dispregiativo, soprattutto nell’era Tokugawa (1603- 1868), l’epoca di massimo isolamento e splendore del Giappone. In questo periodo i ronin giravano per le campagne intimidendo i contadini e saccheggiando villaggi, in cerca di un nuovo signore a cui prestare servizio.

Un rōnin poteva essere disposto a lavorare per chiunque lo pagasse, oppure poteva arrivare a unirsi ad altri come lui e creare scompiglio. Questi guerrieri erano disprezzati dai samurai veri e propri, tant’è che nessuno era chiamato a rispondere della loro uccisione. Ma i ronin avevano anche un altro ruolo. Capitava infatti che si unissero a mercanti, contadini e artigiani per difendere i villaggi dai saccheggi dei briganti, insegnando tecniche di guerra e le arti marziali. Costituivano una sorta di guardia del corpo (yojimbo) auto organizzata.

Si pensa che questa specie di polizia privata possa essere all’origine della yakuza, la moderna mafia giapponese. I suoi affiliati hanno infatti in comune con i samurai un forte senso di appartenenza ai clan e una lealtà assoluta verso il proprio “boss”.

Questi sono alcuni termini usati come sinonimo di samurai.

•Buke 武家 – un appartenente a una famiglia militare, un suo membro;

•Mononofu もののふ – termine arcaico per “guerriero”;

•Musha 武者 – abbreviazione di bugeisha 武芸者, letteralmente “uomo delle arti marziali”;

•Shi 士 – pronuncia sinogiapponese del carattere che comunemente si legge samurai

•Tsuwamono 兵 – termine arcaico per “soldato”, reso celebre da un famoso haiku di Matsuo Basho; indica una persona valorosa;

Photo credits: samurai-archives.com 

L’addestramento cominciava dai 3 anni, e fino ai 7 consisteva nell’imparare a non temere la morte ed il combattimento, e ad obbedire al proprio signore, controllando la mente ed il corpo. Per temprare il corpo, venivano sottoposti a docce gelate sotto le cascate o nella neve, così che potessero imparare a resistere agli stimoli esterni. Si passava poi all’insegnamento dell’uso dell’arco e della spada contro nemici immaginari.

A 12 anni erano già in grado di uccidere.

Il legame con gli addestratori poteva diventare molto speciale. In epoca feudale le pratiche sessuali tra uomini erano all’ordine del giorno per i guerrieri samurai. Secondo la tradizione dello shudo – da wakashudo (la “Via degli adolescenti”) – i giovani trascorrevano diversi anni a contatto con uomini più grandi. Uomini che oltre ad iniziarli alle tecniche di combattimento li introducevano al mondo del sesso. Gli apprendisti samurai ne divenivano allora gli amanti ufficiali, in un rapporto che era riconosciuto ed esigeva, naturalmente, fedeltà assoluta.

I samurai lavoravano per la gloria del daimyō, ma il loro stipendio si limitava a una paga in riso. Per mantenere il proprio status sociale, i samurai che non erano già ricchi di famiglia si arrangiavano come potevano con lavoretti secondari, come la fabbricazione di ombrellini o stuzzicadenti. Li facevano vendere ad altri, però, per non compromettersi troppo.  Avevano però anche diversi privilegi: avere un cognome, che la gente comune in Giappone non aveva, e quello del kirisute gomen, ossia l’ “autorizzazione a tagliare e abbandonare”. Il samurai poteva cioè uccidere chiunque gli avesse mancato di rispetto, se di rango inferiore. L’unico scrupolo era riuscire a dimostrare successivamente, in sede legale, il torto subito.

Per quanto riguarda la vita sentimentale,  la moglie dei samurai veniva scelta a tavolino. Essa doveva appartenere a una stirpe guerriera, oppure essere “adottata” da una famiglia di samurai che ne nobilitasse le origini prima del matrimonio. Alle spose dei samurai toccava però un “privilegio” (si fa per dire): col matrimonio guadagnavano il diritto di praticare anch’esse il suicidio rituale, il jigai, con un taglio alla gola.

Nel Giappone medievale si potevano incontrare anche donne samurai addestrate nei valori e nell’arte marziali della casta fin da giovanissima età. I Samurai di questa casta praticavano arti marziali, lo zen, il cha no yu (arte del té) e lo shodō (arte della scrittura). Nell’era Tokugawa persero la loro funziona militare diventando molti di loro semplici rōnin. Alla fine del periodo Edo i samurai erano diventati burocrati al servizio dello shōgun o del daimyō, e la loro spada veniva usata solo per scopi cerimoniali per sottolineare la loro appartenenza alla casta.

Con il rinnovamento Meiji e l’apertura del Giappone al mondo occidentale nel XIX secolo, la classe dei samurai fu abolita poichè ritenuta anacronistica e fuori dal tempo. Al suo posto fu favorito un esercito in stile occidentale. Due leggi, sotto l’Imperatore Meiji (1852-1912), segnarono la fine dei samurai. Una, l’editto Dampatsurei, obbligò i servi guerrieri a rinunciare al codino e a portare i capelli all’occidentale. L’altra, meno di “facciata” e ancora più determinante, fu l’editto Haitorei, che li privò del diritto di portare armi in pubblico. Ai samurai senza katana non rimase che una piccola pensione statale, e il rifugio nel folclore.

Ma il bushidō continua tutt’oggi a sopravvivere nella società Giapponese odierna.

Le Armi

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I samurai usavano una grande varietà di armi, anzi un’evidente differenza tra la cavalleria europea e i samurai riguarda proprio l’impiego delle armi. I samurai non ritennero mai che esistessero armi disonorevoli, ma solo armi efficienti e inefficienti. L’uso delle armi da fuoco costituì una parziale eccezione, in quanto fu fortemente scoraggiato durante il XVII secolo dagli shogun Tokugawa. Si arrivò a proibirle quasi completamente e ad allontanarle del tutto dalla pratica della maggior parte dei samurai.

Nel periodo Tokugawa si diffuse l’idea che la katana contenesse l’anima del Samurai, e a volte sono stati descritti (erroneamente) come totalmente dipendenti dalla spada per combattere.

Raggiunti i tredici anni, in una cerimonia chiamata genpuku, ai ragazzi della classe militare veniva dato un wakizashi (lo spadino utilizzato anche per suicidarsi) e un nome da adulto. Diventavano così vassalli, cioè samurai a tutti gli effetti. Questo dava loro il diritto di portare una katana, sebbene venisse spesso assicurata e chiusa con dei lacci per evitare sfoderamenti immotivati o accidentali. Insieme, katana e wakizashi, vengono chiamati daishō (letteralmente: “grande e piccolo”). Il loro possesso era la prerogativa del buke, la classe militare al vertice della piramide sociale. Portare le due spade venne vietato nel 1523 dallo shogun ai cittadini comuni che non erano figli di un samurai, per evitare rivolte armate, perché prima della riforma tutti potevano diventare samurai.

Ma oltre alla spada, un’altra importantissima arma dei samurai, era lo shigetou, l’arco asimmetrico giapponese, e ciò non fu modificato per secoli, fino all’introduzione della polvere da sparo e del moschetto nel XVI secolo.  Lo shigetou, lungo 2 metri e fatto di legno laminato e laccato,era arma di esclusiva pertinenza dei samurai. Fino alla fine del XIII secolo la via della spada (kendo) fu meno considerata della via dell’arco da molti esperti di bushidō. Un arco giapponese era un’arma molto potente: le sue dimensioni permettevano di lanciare con precisione vari tipi di proiettili (come frecce infuocate o frecce di segnalazione) alla distanza di cento metri. Arrivavano addirittura fino a duecento metri quando non era necessaria la precisione.

Durante l’era di più grande potere dei samurai il termine yumitori (arciere) veniva utilizzato come titolo onorario per un guerriero, anche quando l’arte della spada divenne la più importante. Gli arcieri giapponesi (vedi arte del kyūjutsu) sono ancora fortemente associati con il dio della guerra Hachiman.

Photo credits: nihonjapangiappone.com

L’arco veniva usato solitamente a piedi, dietro un tedate, un largo scudo di legno, ma poteva essere usato anche a cavallo. La pratica di tirare con l’arco da cavallo divenne una cerimonia shinto detta yabusame. Nelle battaglie contro gli invasori mongoli, questi archi furono l’arma decisiva, contrapposti agli archi più piccoli e alle balestre usate dai cinesi e dai mongoli.

Nel XV secolo anche la lancia (yari) divenne un’arma popolare. Lo yari tese a rimpiazzare la naginata allorquando l’eroismo individuale divenne meno importante sui campi di battaglia e le milizie furono maggiormente organizzate. Nelle mani dei fanti o ashigaru divenne più efficace di una katana, soprattutto nelle grosse cariche campali. Nella battaglia di Shizugatake, in cui Shibata Katsuie fu sconfitto da Toyotomi Hideyoshi, i cosiddetti “sette lancieri di Shizugatake” ebbero un ruolo cruciale nella vittoria.

Completavano il corredo i ventagli da guerra con i bordi affilati come coltelli, ma per diverse epoche della storia giapponese i samurai furono i soli a poter portare armi.

Il Seppuku

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Seppuku (切腹) è un termine giapponese che indica un rituale per il suicidio in uso tra i samurai. In Occidente viene usata più spesso la parola harakiri (腹切り). A volte in italiano viene erroneamente pronunciato come “karakiri”, con pronuncia e scrittura errata dell’ideogramma hara.

Nello specifico seppuku e harakiri presentano alcune differenze, qui di seguito spiegate.

La traduzione letterale del termine seppuku è “taglio dello stomaco”, mentre per harakiri è “taglio del ventre” e veniva eseguito secondo un rituale rigidamente codificato. Esso era un modo per espiare una colpa commessa o un mezzo per sfuggire a una morte disonorevole per mano dei nemici. Un elemento fondamentale per la comprensione di questo rituale è il seguente: si riteneva che il ventre fosse la sede dell’anima.Il significato simbolico di questo atto era dunque quello di mostrare agli astanti la propria anima priva di colpe in tutta la sua purezza. Ma anche l’estremo gesto di orgoglio e libertà di un samurai seguiva regole rigidamente codificate. Il sacrificio si doveva consumare davanti a testimoni utilizzando il pugnale (tantō) o la spada corta (wakizashi) ed eseguendo un taglio a “L”, che partiva dall’ombelico e si allungava da sinistra a destra, e poi verso l’alto.

I piedi con le punte rivolte verso il basso garantivano che il moribondo seduto sulle ginocchia cadesse in avanti, coprendo lo scempio di sangue e budella. La presenza di testimoni e del kaishakunin, l’assistente incaricato di finire il ferito con un colpo di katana al collo, assicurava che la vittima non soffrisse ulteriormente (e non avesse ripensamenti).

Il kaishakunin era un fidato compagno del samurai che, previa promessa all’amico, lo decapitava appena egli si era inferto la ferita all’addome, per fare in modo che il dolore non gli sfigurasse il volto e preservandone l’onore.

Alcune volte praticato volontariamente per svariati motivi, durante il periodo Edo (1604–1867) divenne una condanna a morte che non comportava disonore. Infatti il condannato, vista la sua posizione nella casta militare, non veniva giustiziato, ma invitato o costretto a togliersi da solo la vita praticandosi con un pugnale una ferita profonda all’addome di una gravità tale da provocarne la morte.

La decapitazione (kaishaku) richiedeva eccezionale abilità e infatti il kaishakunin era l’amico più abile nel maneggio della spada. Un errore derivante da poca abilità o emozione avrebbe infatti causato notevoli ulteriori sofferenze. Proprio l’intervento del kaishakunin e la conseguente decapitazione costituiscono la differenza essenziale tra seppuku e harakiri. Infatti, sebbene le modalità di taglio del ventre siano analoghe, nell’harakiri non è prevista la decapitazione del suicida. Viene pertanto a mancare tutta la relativa parte del rituale, con conseguente minore solennità dell’evento.

Il più noto caso di seppuku collettivo è quello dei “quarantasette rōnin”, celebrato nel dramma Chushingura, mentre il più recente è quello dello scrittore Yukio Mishima avvenuto nel 1970. In quest’ultimo caso, il kaishakunin Masakatsu Morita, in preda all’emozione, sbagliò ripetutamente il colpo di grazia, e ciò richiese l’intervento di Hiroyasu Koga, che decapitò lo scrittore.

Una delle descrizioni più accurate di un seppuku è quella contenuta nel libro Tales of Old Japan (1871) di Algernon Bertram Mitford, ripresa in seguito da Inazo Nitobe nel suo libro Bushido, L’anima del Giappone (1899).

Nel 1889, con l’introduzione della costituzione Meiji, venne abolito come forma di punizione ma casi di seppuku si ebbero al termine della seconda guerra mondiale tra gli ufficiali, spesso provenienti dalla casta dei samurai, che non accettarono la resa del Giappone.  Un caso celebre fu quello dell’anziano ex daimyō Nogi Maresuke che si suicidò nel 1912 alla notizia della morte dell’imperatore.

Con il nome di jigai, il seppuku era previsto, nella tradizione della casta dei samurai, anche per le donne. In questo caso il taglio non avveniva al ventre bensì alla gola, dopo essersi legate i piedi per non assumere posizioni scomposte durante l’agonia.

L’arma usata poteva essere il tantō (coltello), anche se più spesso, soprattutto sul campo di battaglia, la scelta ricadeva sul wakizashi, detto per questo “guardiano dell’onore”.

Photo credits: wikipedia.org 

Il Bushidō

Il guerriero giapponese viveva e moriva secondo un rigido codice di comportamento, il bushidō (la via del guerriero), che regolava il rapporto unico e inscindibile tra il samurai e il suo daimyō. Alla base di questo codice c’era la fedeltà assoluta, una rigida definizione di onore e il sacrificio del bene del singolo in favore del benessere comune. È questa l’etica alla base delle azioni anche dei kamikaze giapponesi durante la Seconda Guerra Mondiale e di cui si avvertono strascichi in alcune aziende nipponiche moderne.

Qualora un’offesa o una grave colpa avesse incrinato questo rapporto, c’era sempre una via per salvare l’onore: il seppuku o harakiri, il suicidio rituale.

I precetti dei samurai furono pesantemente influenzati dalle principali correnti spirituali e culturali giapponesi. Verso il 1000 era ancora lo shintoismo la principale fonte di ispirazione per i samurai, corrente che sottolineava la fedeltà all’imperatore, in un’epoca in cui essere samurai voleva dire essere un guerriero abile. Successivamente però concetti taoisti, buddisti e confuciani iniziarono a diffondersi e a sovrapporsi tra lori. In particolare ebbero grande fortuna, dopo il buddismo cinese, il buddismo zen e il buddismo esoterico. Quest’ultimo era praticato soprattutto nelle casate nobili più ricche e potenti, mentre il buddismo zen era praticato anche a livello di piccole scuole e fra i rōnin. In quest’epoca si diffusero molte scuole che associavano ai doveri del samurai l’obbligo di svolgere i propri compiti non solo al massimo delle proprie capacità, ma anche con grazia ed eleganza. Ciò voleva dire dimostrare attraverso il gesto la propria superiorità. Questa pratica che fu molto contestata nel XVI secolo, è rimasta in molte scuole di pensiero samurai.

I guerrieri del 900 erano divenuti, prima del 1300, raffinati poeti, mecenati, pittori, cultori delle arti, collezionisti di porcellane, codificando in molte opere di bushido (fino al Libro dei cinque anelli) una precisa necessità. Un samurai doveva infatti essere esperto in molte arti, non solo in quella della spada. La prima grande codificazione di questa svolta avvenne nello Heike Monogatari, opera letteraria più famosa del periodo Kamakura (1185-1249). Quest’opera attribuiva alla via del guerriero l’obbligo dell’equilibrio tra la forza militare e la potenza culturale. Gli eroi di questa epopea (la storia di una lotta tra due clan, i Taira e i Minamoto) e di altre che si ispirarono a questa negli anni immediatamente successivi, sono gentili, ben vestiti, molto attenti all’igiene, cortesi con il nemico nei momenti di tregua. Ma erano anche abili musicisti, competenti poeti, letterati talvolta particolarmente versati nella calligrafia o nella disposizione dei fiori. E ancora, era appassionati cultori del giardinaggio e spesso interessati alla letteratura cinese.

Inoltre, morendo, spesso mettevano in versi il proprio epitaffio.

Questa visione duplice dei compiti del samurai si affermò grandemente, fino a diventare egemonica. Hojo Nagauji (o Soun), signore di Odawara (1432-1519), uno dei più importanti samurai della sua epoca scrisse nei Ventuno precetti del samurai: “La via del guerriero deve sempre essere sia culturale, sia marziale. Non è necessario ricordare che l’antica legge stabilisce che le arti culturali dovrebbero essere rette con la sinistra e quelle marziali con la destra”. In questo egli sottolineava una certa predominanza per le arti marziali, ma da questo insegnamento trassero spunto numerosi samurai che divennero famosi tanto come spadaccini, quanto, e più, come esperti della cerimonia del tè, o come artisti, attori di teatro Nō e poeti. Imagawa Royshun (1325-1420), grande commentatore dell’arte della guerra di Sun Tzu, nelle sue Norme si era spinto oltre, affermando che “Senza conoscere la via della cultura, non ti sarà possibile raggiungere la vittoria in quella marziale”. Royshun aveva così creato un nuovo concetto di equilibrio tra cultura e guerra noto come bunbu ryodo (“non abbandonare mai le due vie”).

Lo stesso Miyamoto Musashi, uno dei più grandi duellisti del XVII secolo, divenne nella seconda parte della sua vita uno dei più grandi pittori di quel periodo. Concordava con Takeda Shingen (1521-1573), forse il più brillante generale del XVI secolo, che affermava come la grandezza di un uomo dipendeva dalla pratica di numerose vie.

Questo atteggiamento ovviamente provocò tutta una serie di aspre critiche. In particolare si ricorda l’avversione di Kato Kiyomasa (1562-1611) per tutto ciò che non era marziale e la sua opinione, condivisa da molte scuole “estremamente marziali”, era che un samurai dedito alla poesia sarebbe divenuto “effeminato”, mentre un samurai che avesse praticato il mestiere dell’attore o si fosse interessato al teatro Nō avrebbe dovuto suicidarsi per il disonore che arrecava al suo nome. Correnti di pensiero “estremamente marziali” e di rifiuto degli aspetti culturali della figura del samurai si diffusero notevolmente nei secoli successivi. Questo fatto potrebbe sembrare paradossale per un’epoca di pace (la cosiddetta Pax Tokugawa) durante la quale in piccoli dojo non solo si accettava l’etichetta, ma anzi la si studiava a fond. Al contempo però si intendeva anche ritornare al significato originario dell’essere samurai, il guerriero impavido.

Le differenti fonti di ispirazione culturale a cui erano soggetti i samurai (scintoismo, scintoismo esoterico, taoismo, buddismo cinese, buddismo della terra pura, buddismo zen, buddismo esoterico, confucianesimo ufficiale cinese, confucianesimo dei glossatori giapponesi ed epica classica giapponese) crearono scuole di pensiero e di pratica molto differenti.I principi di vita seguiti erano talvolta contrapposti o, più spesso, semplicemente complementari, anche grazie alla grande attitudine al pragmatismo e al sincretismo della cultura giapponese.

Photo credits:  wikipedia.org

Simbolo di tutte le arti marziali. Nell’iconografia classica del guerriero il ciliegio rappresenta insieme la bellezza e la caducità della vita, ed era per questo venerato.I sakura, durante la fioritura, mostrano uno spettacolo incantevole nel quale il samurai vedeva riflessa la grandiosità della propria figura avvolta nell’armatura. Ma è sufficiente un improvviso temporale perché tutti i fiori cadano a terra, proprio come il samurai può cadere per un colpo di spada infertogli dal nemico. Il guerriero, abituato a pensare alla morte in battaglia non come un fatto negativo ma come l’unica maniera onorevole di andarsene, rifletté nel fiore di ciliegio questa filosofia.

Un antico verso ancora oggi ricordato è “tra i fiori il ciliegio, tra gli uomini il guerriero” (花は桜木人は武士 hana wa sakuragi, hito wa bushi), ovvero “come il fiore del ciliegio è il migliore tra i fiori, così il guerriero è il migliore tra gli uomini”.

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Samurai

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The words  Samurai comes from the verb saburau that means “to serve” or “to stand by one’s side”, literally “the one who serves”. In Japanese, during the Heian period (794-1185), it was pronounced saburapi and later on saburai.

Another name used to refer to a samurai is bushi (武士). This word appeared for the first time in the Shoku Nihongi (続日本紀, 797 a.d.), an ancient Japanese document in forty volumes. It contains the most important decisions taken by the imperial court from  697 a.d. to 791 a.d. A passage from the book says:  “Samurai are those who build the values of the nation”.

According to the book Ideals of the Samurai by William Scott Wilson, the words bushi and samurai became synonyms at the end of the XII century. Wilson fully explores the origins of the word “warrior” in the Japanese culture without overlooking the kanji used to write it. He stated that ‘bushi’ actually translates into “the man who has the ability to maintain peace, with military or literary strength”. Saburai was replaced by samurai at the beginning of the modern era, at the end of the Azuchi-Momoyama period (1573-1603) and the beginning of the Edo period (the late 16th and 17th centuries).

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Samurai served under a daimyo, local feudal lords who responded to the shogun. When the daimyo died or lost his trust in the samurai, the latter would become a Rōnin, or “wave man”, in other words, “free from constraints”.

The bushidō code, the code of honour of a samurai, required that to atone for one’s crimes and regain honour a samurai had to resort to the practice of harakiri, that means “cutting the abdomen”. Harakiri is the final act of the ritual suicide called seppuku, performed through the cutting of the abdomen with the short sword wakizashi. Violating these principles brought dishonour to the warrior who will as mentioned, become a rōnin, an errant samurai, adrift, without honour or dignity.

The meaning of the word rōnin thus has a negative connotation, and this was especially true in the Tokugawa era (1603- 1868), the period of greatest isolation and splendour of Japan. In this period many rōnin roamed the countrysides intimidating the peasants and plundering villages, in search of a new lord to serve.

A rōnin was ready to work for anyone who paid him or was willing to associate with other rōnin in creating havoc. They were despised by proper samurai and no one would be called to account for the killing of one of them. But rōnin also had another role. In fact, it was not unusual for them to join merchants, peasants and artisans to defend the villages from bandits, teaching them military tactics and martial arts. They were a sort of self-organised bodyguard (yojimbo).

It is believed that the yakuza, the modern Japanese mafia, was born from this sort of private police. In fact, its members still share a strong sense of belonging to the clan and an undivided loyalty toward their “boss” with the ancient samurai.

Here are some of the words used as synonyms of ‘samurai’.

•Buke 武家 – a member of a military family;

•Mononofu もののふ – an archaic word for “warrior”;

•Musha 武者 – abbreviation for bugeisha 武芸者, literally “man of the martial arts”;

•Shi 士 – Sino-Japanese pronunciation of the kanji commonly read as samurai

•Tsuwamono 兵 – an archaic word for  “soldier”, made famous by a well-known haiku of Matsuo Basho. It indicates a heroic person.

Photo credits: samurai-archives.com 

A samurai’s training would begin at the age of 3 and end when they are 7 years old. It included their learning how not to be afraid of death, fighting by controlling their minds and bodies, and to obey the orders of their master. To toughen their body, they were subjected to cold showers under waterfalls or in the snow. This enabled them to resist external stimuli. Then, they were taught how to use the bow and the sword against imaginary enemies. At the age of 12, they will already have the ability to kill.

Their bonds with their master could become very special. In the feudal period, sexual practices between men were very common for samurai warriors. According to the translation of the shudo – from wakashudo (the “way of youths”) – the pupils spent many years with older men. Men who not only taught them fighting skills but also introduced them to the world of eros. Apprentices would then become their official lovers, in a fully recognised relationship that so required absolute loyalty.

A samurai worked for the daimyō’s glory, but their pay came in rice. To keep their social status, samurai who were not born from a rich family relied on secondary works like making small umbrellas or toothpicks. But they made others sell them in their place so not to be compromised themselves. They also had many privileges. For example, they could have a surname, something that commoners of the time did not have in Japan. They also had the privilege of the kirisute gomen, or in other words the “right to cut and leave behind”. A samurai had the right to kill anyone of inferior status who dared to disrespect them. The only concern was to prove, in a legal debate, that they had been wronged.

Regarding their private and love life, the wife was chosen through an arranged marriage. She had to have a warrior’s lineage, or else be “adopted” into a samurai family to ennoble her origins before the marriage.

But a samurai wife also had a “privilege” (euphemistically speaking); with marriage, they too acquired the right to commit the ritual suicide, jigai, by cutting the throat.

In medieval Japan, it was not uncommon to meet samurai women who since their early childhood had been trained according to the values and the martial arts of the warrior class. Samurai of this class practised martial arts, Zen, the cha no yu (tea ceremony), and the shodō (the art of calligraphy).

In the Tokugawa era, samurai lost their military function and many of them became simple rōnin. By the end of the Edo period, samurai had become bureaucrats serving the shōgun or a daimyō, and their sword was just a ceremonial weapon that indicated their status. With the Meiji restoration and the opening of Japan to the west in the XIX century, the samurai class was abolished because it was then considered outdated. Instead, a Western-style army was favoured.

Two laws, under the Meiji Emperor (1852-1912), marked the end of the samurai. One, the Dampatsurei edict, forced warrior servants to give up their topknot haircut to use a western style haircut. The other, less “facade” and even more decisive, was the Haitorei edict, which deprived them of the right to carry weapons in public. To the samurai, without their katana remained nothing but a small state pension and the refuge provided by folklore.
Despite all of that, bushidō still survives in today’s Japanese society.

The weapons

Photo credits: cdn.history.com

Samurai used a large variety of weapons, and there is indeed a clear difference between European cavalry and samurai in this aspect. A samurai never believed distinguished against disgraceful weapons, only efficient and inefficient weapons. The use of firearms was a partial exception to this, as it was strongly discouraged during the 17th century by the shogun Tokugawa. It came to forbid them almost completely and to distance them from the training of most samurai.

In the Tokugawa period, the idea that the katana contained the soul of the samurai started to spread, and samurai are sometimes (though erroneously) described as totally dependent on the sword to fight.
When they had reached the age of thirteen, boys of the military class were given a wakizashi (a short-sword also used to commit suicide) and an adult name in a ceremony called genpuku. In other words, they became vassals and thus official samurai. This gave them the right to carry a katana with them, though it was often secured and closed with laces to avoid unmotivated or accidental drawing. Together, the katana and the wakizashi, are called daishō (literally “big and small”). Their possession was an exclusive privilege of the buke, the military class at the top of the social pyramid.

Carrying these two swords was forbidden in 1523 by the shogun to ordinary citizens who were not sons of a samurai. This was done in order to avoid armed rebellions anyone could become a samurai before this reform.
Aside from swords, there was another very important weapon for a samurai; the shigetou, a Japanese asymmetrical bow. This did not change for centuries until the introduction of gunpowder and musket in the 16th century. The shigetou, 2 meters long and made of laminated and lacquered wood, was a weapon exclusively used by samurai. Until the end of the thirteenth century, the way of the sword (kendo) was less revered than the way of the bow by many bushido experts. A Japanese bow was a very powerful weapon: its dimensions allowed users to fire various types of arrows (such as flaming arrows or signal arrows) with accuracy at a distance of one hundred meters. They even reached up to two hundred meters when precision was not needed.

During the period of samurai’s greatest power, the term yumitori (archer) was used as an honorary title for warriors even when the art of the sword became predominant. Japanese archers (see the art of the kyūjutsu) are still strongly associated with Hachiman the god of war.

Photo credits: nihonjapangiappone.com

The bow was usually used on foot from behind a tedate, a large wooden shield, but it could also be used on horseback. The practice of shooting while riding a horse became a Shinto ceremony called yabusame. In the battles against Mongol invaders, these bows represented a decisive weapon as opposed to the smaller bows and crossbows used by the Chinese and the Mongols.
In the fifteenth century, the spear (yari) became a popular weapon and it began to replace the naginata when individual heroism became less important on the battlefield and militias were more organized. In the hands of foot soldiers or ashigaru, it was more effective than a katana, especially in open-field charges. In the Battle of Shizugatake, where Shibata Katsuie was defeated by Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the so-called “Shizugatake’s Seven spears” played a crucial role for victory.
To complete their armament, there were war fans with knife-like edges, but for much of Japanese history, samurai were the only ones allowed to carry weapons.

Seppuku

Photo credits: focus.it

Seppuku (切腹) is a Japanese term that indicates the ritual suicide performed among samurai. The word harakiri (腹 切 り) is often used in western terminology. In Italian, it is sometimes mistakenly pronounced as “karakiri”, with an erroneous pronunciation and incorrect transcription of the ideogram ‘hara’.
More specifically,  there are a few differences between seppuku and harakiri, as explained below.

The literal translation of the word seppuku is “cutting the stomach”, whereas for harakiri is “cutting the abdomen” and this act was carried out following a rigidly codified ritual. It was a way to atone for one’s crimes or to escape a dishonourable death by the hand of the enemies. A key element to understanding this ritual is the following: the belly was believed to be the seat of the soul. The symbolic meaning of this act was, therefore, to show to the attendees one’s own soul without fault and in all its purity. But even this extreme gesture of pride and freedom of a samurai followed rigidly codified rules.

The sacrifice had to be done in front of witnesses using a dagger (tantō) or the short sword (wakizashi) and executing an “L” cut that, starting from the navel, proceeded from left to right and then upwards. The toes of the feet bent downward guaranteed that the dying man on his knees would fall forward, covering the blood and guts. The presence of witnesses and of a kaishakunin, the assistant who had the responsibility to finish off the wounded man with a blow at his neck, assured that the victim did not suffer any further (and did not have any second thoughts).
The kaishakunin was the samurai’s trusted companion who, as promised to his friend, would behead him as he had wounded his abdomen to ensure that the pain did not disfigure his face and preserve his honour.

Often voluntarily practised for various reasons, during the Edo period (1604-1867) it became a death sentence that did not lead to dishonour. In fact, given his position in the military class, the man sentenced to die was not executed but invited or forced to take his own life with a dagger by cutting his own abdomen so severely that it caused his death.

The beheading (kaishaku) required extraordinary skill and in fact, the kaishakunin would have been the most talented swordsman among his friends. Indeed, a mistake caused by poor skills or by emotion would have caused considerable further suffering. The presence of the kaishakunin and consequent decapitation represent the essential difference between seppuku and harakiri. Although the way the abdomen is cut is similar, in the harakiri the man committing suicide is not expected to be beheaded. Therefore, casting aside all the ritualty of the act,  it results in an event of lesser solemnity.

The most well-known case of collective seppuku is that of the  “forty-seven rōnin”, celebrated in the play Chushingura, while the most recent case is that of the writer Yukio Mishima in 1970. In the latter example, the kaishakunin Masakatsu Morita, overwhelmed with emotion, repeatedly failed at severing Mishima’s head, and it required the intervention of Hiroyasu Koga to behead the writer.

One of the most accurate descriptions of seppuku is that contained in Algernon Bertram Mitford’s Tales of Old Japan (1871), later on resumed by Inazo Nitobe in his book Bushido, The Soul of Japan (1899).
In 1889, with the introduction of the Meiji constitution, it was abolished as a form of punishment, but cases of seppuku were registered at the end of World War II among officers, often from the samurai class, who did not accept Japan’s surrender . Another famous case of seppuku was that of the former daimyō Nogi Maresuke who committed suicide in 1912 after receiving the news of the emperor’s death.

By the name of jigai, seppuku was traditionally performed by women of the samurai class as well. In this case,  after tying feet together to avoid disgraceful positions during the agony, they did not cut their belly but the throat.
The weapon used could be the tantō (knife), although more often the choice fell on the wakizashi, especially on the battlefield, and for this reason, this blade was also called the “guardian of honor”.

Photo credits: wikipedia.org 

The Bushidō code

The Japanese warrior lived and died following a strict code of conduct, the bushidō code (the way of the warrior), which governed the unique and inseparable relationship between the samurai and his daimyō. At the core of this code was absolute loyalty, a rigid definition of honor and the sacrifice of the good of the individual in favor of common good. This was also the ethics behind the actions of Japanese kamikaze during the Second World War, and the same ethics can be traced down to some modern Japanese companies. If an offense or a serious fault had crippled this relationship, there was always one way to save honor: seppuku or harakiri, the ritual suicide.

Samurai’s principles were heavily influenced by the main spiritual and cultural currents that coexisted in the country. Towards 1000 Shintoism was still the main source of inspiration for samurai schools that emphasized loyalty to the emperor in an era in which being a samurai meant to be a capable warrior. Subsequently, however, Taoist, Buddhist, and Confucian ideas began to spread and overlap each other. In particular, after the Chinese Buddhism, Zen Buddhism and esoteric Buddhism experienced a great widespread as well. The latter was mainly practiced among the richest and most powerful noble houses, while zen Buddhism was also practiced by small schools and among rōnin. In this era, many schools that believed it was a samurai’s duty to perform his obligations not only to the best of his abilities, but also with grace and elegance, started to spread. This meant that a samurai had to show his superiority through his gestures. This way of thinking, that often encountered some resistance in the sixteenth century, resisted in many schools of the samurai.

The warriors of the 900 a.d.  had become, before the 1300, sophisticated poets, patrons, painters, art lovers, and porcelain collectors, codifying in many bushido related works (up to the Book of the Five Rings), a precise necessity. In fact, a samurai had to be skilled in many arts and not just in the use of the sword. The first big codification that embodied this important turning point was the Heike Monogatari, the most famous literary work of the Kamakura period (1185-1249). This work attributed to the way of the warrior the obligation to find a balance between military force and cultural power. The heroes of this epic narration (the story of a fight between two clans, the Taira and the Minamoto), and others inspired by it in the following years, are gentle and well-dressed, they take care of their hygiene and are courteous with the enemy in periods of truce. At the same time, they are also skilled musicians, competent poets, scholars, sometimes especially well-versed in calligraphy or the arrangement of flowers. Furthermore, they were enthusiastic gardeners, often interested in Chinese literature and in death, they often put their epitaph in verse.

This dual nature of a samurai’s duties had a remarkable widespread, until it became hegemonic. Hojo Nagauji (or Soun), lord of Odawara (1432-1519), one of the most important samurai of his time, wrote in the Twenty-One Samurai Precepts: “The way of the warrior must always be both cultural and martial. It appears unnecessary to remind that the old laws state that cultural arts should be held in the left hand and martial arts in the right”. These words seem to emphasized a certain predominance of martial arts, but following this teaching many samurai became famous swordsmans as well as experts in the tea ceremony, or artists, actors in the Nō theater and poets. Imagawa Ryoshun (1325-1420), a great commentator on Sun Tzu’s ‘The art of war’, went even further stating  that “Without knowing the way of culture, you will not be able to achieve victory in the martial path.” Ryoshun had thus created a new idea of balance between culture and war known as bunbu ryodo (“never abandon the two ways”).

Miyamoto Musashi himself, one of the strongest duellists of the seventeenth century, became, in the second part of his life, one of the most talented painters of that period. He agreed with Takeda Shingen (1521-1573), perhaps the greatest commander of the sixteenth century, who claimed that the greatness of a man depended on the practice of many ways.
This attitude obviously caused a whole series of harsh criticisms. In particular, we must mention Kato Kiyomasa’s aversion (1562-1611) to everything that was not martial, and his opinion, shared by many “extremely martial” schools, was that a samurai devoted to poetry would become “effeminate”, while a samurai who was also an actor or was interested in Nō theater should have committed suicide for the dishonor he was bringing upon his name.

“Extremely martial” way of thinking and a refusal of the cultural aspects of the samurai figure spread out in the following centuries. This may seem paradoxical for a time of peace (the so-called Pax Tokugawa) during which etiquette was not only accepted in a small dojo, but it was also studied thoroughly. At the same time, however, there was a clear intention to return to the original meaning of being a samurai, a fearless warrior.
Different sources of cultural inspiration, to which samurai were subjected (shintoism, esoteric shintoism, Taoism, Chinese Buddhism, pure earth Buddhism, Zen Buddhism, Esoteric Buddhism, Chinese Confucianism, Confucianism of Japanese glossators and Japanese classical epics), created different schools of thought and practice. Sometimes they followed opposing principles of life, but more often they were simply complementary, also thanks to the great attitude to pragmatism and the syncretism that characterizes Japanese culture.

Photo credits:  wikipedia.org

A symbol of all martial arts. In the classical iconography of the warrior, cherry blossoms represented the beauty and caducity of life and were therefore revered. The sakura, when in full bloom, show a lovely sight in which the samurai recognised the magnificence of his figure wrapped in his armor. But it takes just a sudden storm to make all the flowers fall to the ground, just as how a samurai can fall by the sword of his enemy. For the warrior who is accustomed to the idea of dying in battle, this is not as a negative thing but is instead the only honorable way to part with the world, as reflected this philosophy in the cherry blossom .
An ancient verse still known today says “Among flowers the cherry blossom, among men the warrior” (花 は 桜 木人 は 武士 hana wa sakuragi, hito wa bushi), or “as the cherry blossom is the best among flowers, so the warrior is the best among men.”[:ja]

Samurai

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The name Samurai comes from the verb saburau that means “to serve” or “to stand by one’s side”, literally “the one who serves”. In Japanese, during the Heian period (794-1185), it was pronounced saburapi and later on saburai.

Another name used to refer to a samurai is bushi (武士). This word appeared for the first time in the Shoku Nihongi (続日本紀, 797 a.d.), an ancient Japanese document in forty volumes. It contains the most important decisions taken by the imperial court from  697 a.d. and the  791 a.d. A passage from the book says:  “Samurai are those who build the values of the nation”.

According to the book Ideals of the Samurai by William Scott Wilson, the words bushi and samurai became synonyms at the end of the XII century. Wilson fully explores the origins of the word “warrior” in the Japanese culture without overlooking the kanjis used to write it. He states that ‘bushi’ is actually translated with “the man who has the ability to maintain peace, with military or literary strength”. Saburai was replaced by samurai at the beginning of the modern era, at the end of the Azuchi-Momoyama period (1573-1603) and the beginning of the Edo period (the late 16th and 17th centuries).

Photo credits: focus.it

A Samurai served under a daimyo, local feudal lords who responded to the shogun. When the daimyo died or lost his trust in the samurai, the latter would become a Rōnin, or “wave man”, in other words “free from constraints”.

The bushidō code, the code of honour of samurai, required that to atone for one’s crimes and regain honor a samurai had to resort to the practice of harakiri, that means “cutting the abdomen”. Harakiri is the final act of the ritual suicide called seppuku, performed through the cutting of the abdomen with the short sword wakizashi. Violating these principles brought dishonor to the warrior that, as we said, became a rōnin, an errant samurai, adrift, without honor or dignity.

So, the meaning of the word rōnin had a negative connotation, and this was especially true in the Tokugawa era (1603- 1868), the period of greatest isolation and splendor of Japan. In this period many rōnin roamed the countrysides intimidating the peasants and plundering villages, in search of a new lord to serve.

A rōnin was ready to work from anyone paying him, or be willing to associate with other rōnin creating an havoc. They were despised by proper samurai and no one would be called to account for the killing of one of them. But rōnin also had another role. In fact, it was not unusual for them to join merchants, peasants and artisans to defend the villages from bandits, teaching them military tactics and martial arts. They were a sort of  self-organised body guard (yojimbo).

It is believed that the yakuza, the modern Japanese mafia, was born from this sort of private police. In fact its members share with the ancient samurai a strong sense of belonging to the clan and an undivided loyalty toward their “boss”.

Here are some of the words used as synonyms of samurai.

•Buke 武家 – member of a military family;

•Mononofu もののふ – archaic word for “warrior”;

•Musha 武者 – abbreviation for bugeisha 武芸者, literally “man of the martial arts”;

•Shi 士 – sino-japanese pronunciation of the kanji commonly read as samurai

•Tsuwamono 兵 – archaic word for  “soldier”, made famous by a well-known haiku of Matsuo Basho. It indicates an heroic person.

Photo credits: samurai-archives.com 

Their training started at the age of 3, and till 7 years old it consisted in learning not to be afraid of death and fighting by controlling their minds and bodys, and to obey to the orders of their master. To toughen their body, they were subject to cold showers under waterfalls or in the snow. This enabled them to resist to external stimuli. Then, they were taught how to use the bow and the sword against imaginary enemies. At the age of 12 they were already able to kill.

The bond with the master could become very special. In the feudal period, sexual practices among men were very common for samurai warriors. According to the translation of the shudo – from wakashudo (the “way of youths”) – the pupils spent many years with older men. Men that not only taught them fighting skills but also introduced them to the world of eros. Apprentices would then become their official lovers, in a fully recognised relationship that so required absolute loyalty.

A samurai worked for the daimyō’s glory, but their pay consisted in rice. To keep their social status, those samurai who were not born from a rich family relied on secondary works like making small umbrellas or toothpicks. But they made others sell them in their place so not to be compromised themselves. They also had many privileges: for example they could have a surname, something that commoners of the time couldn’t have in Japan. They also had the privilege of the kirisute gomen, or in other words the “right to cut and leave behind”. A samurai had the right to kill anyone of inferior status who dared to disrespect them. The only concern was to prove, in a legal debate, that they had been wronged.

Regarding their private and love life, the wife was chosen through an arranged marriage. She had to have a warrior’s lineage, or else be “adopted” into a samurai family to ennoble her origins before the marriage.

But a samurai wife also had a “privilege” (euphemistically speaking): with marriage they too acquired the right to commit the ritual suicide, the  jigai, by cutting the throat.

In medieval Japan it was not uncommon to meet samurai women that since their early childhood had been trained according to the values and the martial arts of the warrior class. Samurai of this class practiced martial arts, Zen, the cha no yu (tea ceremony) and the shodō (art of the calligraphy).

In the Tokugawa era they lost their military function and many of them became simple rōnin. By the end of the Edo period samurai had become bureaucrats serving for the shōgun or a daimyō, and their sward was just a ceremonial weapon indicating their status. With the Meiji restoration and the opening of Japan to the west in the XIX century, the samurai class was abolished because it was now considered outdated. Instead, a Western-style army was favored. Two laws, under the Meiji Emperor (1852-1912), marked the end of samurai. One, the Dampatsurei edict, forced warrior servants to give up their topknot haircut to use a western style haircut. The other, less “facade” and even more decisive, was the Haitorei edict, which deprived them of the right to carry weapons in public. To samurai without their katana remained nothing but a small state pension and the refuge provided by folklore.
But bushidō still survives in today’s Japanese society.

The weapons

Photo credits: cdn.history.com

Samurai used a large variety of weapons, and indeed a clear difference between European cavalry and samurai concerns the use of weapons. A samurai never believed that there were disgraceful weapons, but only efficient and inefficient weapons. The use of firearms was a partial exception to this, as it was strongly discouraged during the 17th century by the shogun Tokugawa. It came to forbid them almost completely and to distance them from the training of most samurai.

In the Tokugawa period the idea that the katana contained the soul of the samurai started to spread, and samurai are sometimes (though erroneously) described as totally dependent on the sword to fight.
When they had reached the age of thirteen year old, boys of the military class were given, in a ceremony called genpuku, a wakizashi (the sword also used to commit suicide) and an adult name. In other words they became vassals and so official samurai. This gave them the right to bring a katana with them, though it was often secured and closed with laces to avoid unmotivated or accidental drawing. Together, the katana and the wakizashi, are called daishō (literally “big and small”). Their possession was an exclusive privilege of the buke, the military class at the top of the social pyramid.

Bringing this two swords was forbidden in 1523 by the shogun to ordinary citizens who were not sons of a samurai. This was decided in order to avoid armed rebellions since before the reform everyone could become a samurai.
But other than the sword, another very important weapon for a samurai, was the shigetou, the Japanese asymmetrical bow, and this was not modified for centuries until the introduction of gunpowder and musket in the 16th century. The shigetou, 2 meters long and made of laminated and lacquered wood, was a weapon exclusively used by samurai. Until the end of the thirteenth century the way of the sword (kendo) was less considered then the way of the bow by many bushido experts. A Japanese bow was a very powerful weapon: its dimensions allowed to fire with accuracy various types of arrows (such as flaming arrows or signal arrows) at a distance of one hundred meters. They even reached up to two hundred meters when precision was not needed.

During the period of samurai’s greatest power, the term yumitori (archer) was used as an honorary title for warriors even when the art of the sword became predominant. Japanese archers (see the art of the kyūjutsu) are still strongly associated with Hachiman the god of war.

Photo credits: nihonjapangiappone.com

The bow was usually used on foot from behind a tedate, a large wooden shield, but it could also be used on horseback. The practice of shooting while riding a horse became a shinto ceremony called yabusame. In the battles against Mongol invaders, these bows represented a decisive weapon as opposed to the smaller bows and crossbows used by the Chinese and the Mongols.
In the fifteenth century the spear (yari) became a popular weapon. The yari started to replace the naginata when individual heroism became less important on the battlefield and militias were more organized. In the hands of foot soldiers or ashigaru it was more effective than a katana, especially in open-field charges. In the Battle of Shizugatake, where Shibata Katsuie was defeated by Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the so-called “Shizugatake’s Seven spears” played a crucial role for the victory.
To complete their armament there were war fans with knife-like edges, but for many periods of Japanese history samurai were the only ones allowed to carry weapons.

Seppuku

Photo credits: focus.it

Seppuku (切腹) is a Japanese term that indicates the ritual suicide performed among samurai. The word harakiri (腹 切 り) is often used in western terminology. In Italian it is sometimes mistakenly pronounced as “karakiri”, with an erroneous pronunciation and incorrect transcription of the ideogram ‘hara’.
More specifically,  there are some differences between seppuku and harakiri, as explained below.

The literal translation of the word seppuku is “cutting the stomach”, whereas for harakiri is “cutting the abdomen” and this act was carried out following a rigidly codified ritual. It was a way to atone for one’s crimes or to escape a dishonorable death by the hand of the enemies. A key element to understand this ritual is the following: the belly was believed to be the seat of the soul. The symbolic meaning of this act was therefore to show to the attendees one’s own soul without fault and in all its purity. But even this extreme gesture of pride and freedom of a samurai followed rigidly codified rules.

The sacrifice had to be consumed in front of witnesses using a dagger (tantō) or the short sword (wakizashi) and executing a “L” cut that, starting from the navel, proceeded from left to right and then upwards.The fingers of the feet bent downward guaranteed that the dying man on his knees would fall forward, covering the blood and guts. The presence of witnesses and of a kaishakunin, the assistant that had the responsibility to finish off the wounded man with a blow at his neck, assured that the victim did not suffer any further (and did not have any second thoughts).
The kaishakunin was the samurai’s trusted companion who, as promised to his friend, would behead him as he had wounded his abdomen to ensure that the pain did not disfigure his face and preserve his honor.

Often voluntarily practiced for various reasons, during the Edo period (1604-1867) it became a death sentence that did not lead to dishonor. In fact, given his position in the military class, the man sentenced to die was not executed but invited or forced to take his own life with a dagger by cutting his own abdomen so severely that it caused his death.

The beheading (kaishaku) required extraordinary skill and in fact the kaishakunin was the most talented swordsman among his friends. Indeed, a mistake caused by poor skills or by emotion would have caused considerable further suffering. The presence of the kaishakunin and consequent decapitation represent the essential difference between seppuku and harakiri. In fact, although the way the abdomen is cut are similar, in the harakiri the man committing suicide is not expected to be beheaded. Therefore, casting aside all the ritualty of the act,  it results in an event of lesser solemnity.

The most well-known case of collective seppuku is that of the  “forty-seven rōnin”, celebrated in the play Chushingura, while the most recent case is that of the writer Yukio Mishima in 1970. In the latter example, the kaishakunin Masakatsu Morita, overwhelmed with emotion, repeatedly failed at severing Mishima’s head, and it required the intervention of Hiroyasu Koga to behead the writer.

One of the most accurate descriptions of seppuku is that contained in Algernon Bertram Mitford’s Tales of Old Japan (1871), later on resumed by Inazo Nitobe in his book Bushido, The Soul of Japan (1899).
In 1889, with the introduction of the Meiji constitution, it was abolished as a form of punishment, but cases of seppuku were registered at the end of World War II among officers, often from the samurai class, who did not accept Japan’s surrender . Another famous case of seppuku was that of the former daimyō Nogi Maresuke who committed suicide in 1912 after receiving the news of the emperor’s death.

By the name of jigai, seppuku was traditionally performed by women of the samurai class as well. In this case,  after tying feet together to avoid disgraceful positions during the agony, they did not cut their belly but the throat.
The weapon used could be the tantō (knife), although more often the choice fell on the wakizashi, especially on the battlefield, and for this reason this blade was also called the “guardian of honor”.

Photo credits: wikipedia.org 

The Bushidō code

The Japanese warrior lived and died following a strict code of conduct, the bushidō code (the way of the warrior), which governed the unique and inseparable relationship between the samurai and his daimyō. At the core of this code there was absolute loyalty, a rigid definition of honor and the sacrifice of the good of the individual in favor of common good. This was also the ethics behind the actions of Japanese kamikaze during the Second World War, and the same ethics can be traced down to some modern Japanese companies. If an offense or a serious fault had crippled this relationship, there was always one way to save honor: seppuku or harakiri, the ritual suicide.

Samurai’s principles were heavily influenced by the main spiritual and cultural currents that coexisted in the country. Towards 1000 Shintoism was still the main source of inspiration for samurai schools that emphasized loyalty to the emperor in an era in which being a samurai meant to be a capable warrior. Subsequently, however, Taoist, Buddhist, and Confucian ideas began to spread and overlap each other. In particular, after the Chinese Buddhism, Zen Buddhism and esoteric Buddhism experienced a great widespread as well. The latter was mainly practiced among the richest and most powerful noble houses, while zen Buddhism was also practiced by small schools and among rōnin. In this era, many schools that believed it was a samurai’s duty to perform his obligations not only to the best of his abilities, but also with grace and elegance, started to spread. This meant that a samurai had to show his superiority through his gestures. This way of thinking, that often encountered some resistance in the sixteenth century, resisted in many schools of samurai.

The warriors of the 900 a.d.  had become, before the 1300, sophisticated poets, patrons, painters, art lovers, and porcelain collectors, codifying in many bushido related works (up to the Book of the Five Rings) a precise necessity. In fact, a samurai had to be skilled in many arts, not just in the use of the sword. The first big codification that embodied this important turning point was the Heike Monogatari, the most famous literary work of the Kamakura period (1185-1249). This work attributed to the way of the warrior the obligation to find balance between military force and cultural power. The heroes of this epic narration (the story of a fight between two clans, the Taira and the Minamoto), and others inspired by it in the following years, are gentle and well-dressed, they take care of their hygiene and are courteous with the enemy in periods of truce. But they are also skilled musicians, competent poets, scholars, sometimes especially well-versed in calligraphy or the arrangement of flowers. And more, they were enthusiastic gardeners, often interested in Chinese literature. Also, dying, they often put their epitaph in verse.

This dual nature of a samurai’s duties had a remarkable widespread, until it became hegemonic. Hojo Nagauji (or Soun), lord of Odawara (1432-1519), one of the most important samurai of his time, wrote in the Twenty-One Samurai Precepts: “The way of the warrior must always be both cultural and martial. It appears unnecessary to remind that old laws state that cultural arts should be held in the left hand and martial arts in the right”. These words seem to emphasized a certain predominance of martial arts, but following this teaching many samurai became famous swordsmans as well as experts in the tea ceremony, or artists, actors in the Nō theater and poets. Imagawa Royshun (1325-1420), a great commentator on Sun Tzu’s ‘The art of war’, went even further stating  that “Without knowing the way of culture, you will not be able to achieve victory in the martial path.” Royshun had thus created a new idea of balance between culture and war known as bunbu ryodo (“never abandon the two ways”).

Miyamoto Musashi himself, one of the strongest duellists of the seventeenth century, became, in the second part of his life, one of the most talented painters of that period. He agreed with Takeda Shingen (1521-1573), perhaps the greatest commander of the sixteenth century, who claimed that the greatness of a man depended on the practice of many ways.
This attitude obviously caused a whole series of harsh criticisms. In particular, we must mention Kato Kiyomasa’s aversion (1562-1611) to everything that was not martial, and his opinion, shared by many “extremely martial” schools, was that a samurai devoted to poetry would become “effeminate”, while a samurai who was also an actor or was interested in Nō theater should have committed suicide for the dishonor he was bringing upon his name.

“Extremely martial” way of thinking and a refusal of the cultural aspects of the samurai figure spread out in the following centuries. This may seem paradoxical for a time of peace (the so-called Pax Tokugawa) during which etiquette was not only accepted in small dojo, but it was also studied thoroughly. At the same time, however, there was a clear intention to return to the original meaning of being a samurai, a fearless warrior.
The different sources of cultural inspiration to which samurai were subjected (shintoism, esoteric shintoism, Taoism, Chinese Buddhism, pure earth Buddhism, Zen Buddhism, Esoteric Buddhism, Chinese Confucianism, Confucianism of Japanese glossators and Japanese classical epics) created different schools of thought and practice. Sometimes they followed opposing principles of life, but more often they were simply complementary, also thanks to the great attitude to pragmatism and the syncretism that characterizes Japanese culture.

Photo credits:  wikipedia.org

Symbol of all martial arts. In the classical iconography of the warrior, cherry blossoms represented the beauty and caducity of life and were therefore revered. The sakura, when in full bloom, show a lovely sight in which the samurai recognised the magnificence of his figure wrapped in his armor. But it takes just a sudden storm to make all the flowers fall to the ground, as a samurai can fall by the sword of his enemy. The warrior, accustomed to the idea of dying in battle not as a negative thing but as the only honorable way to part with the world, reflected this philosophy in the cherry blossom .
An ancient verse still known today says “Among flowers the cherry blossom, among men the warrior” (花 は 桜 木人 は 武士 hana wa sakuragi, hito wa bushi), or “as the cherry blossom is the best among flowers, so the warrior is the best among men.”[:]