Japan History: 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).

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.


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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”.

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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.

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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.”