Sunday, 18 Nov 2018

The Samurai Code of Honor

The Samurai Code of Honor

The Truth of Samurai Code of Honor

One of my main objectives is to bring about a more realistic understanding of Japanese and samurai honor. The version the world understands is the version of pre- and post-Second World War. The twentieth century saw the samurai image being used in Japan and the rest of the world to promote the idea of a form of fairy-tale honor system. The glamourous and chivalric knight who never retreats, never surrenders and always fights. It is not my intent to mislabel the samurai or to veer into negativity, but they must be viewed through the eyes of historical truth.

The Samurai Code of Honor - photo 1

The Samurai Code of Honor

Samurai Code of Honor. Retreat: samurai did retreat; they had complex tactics on the subject.

Samurai Code of Honor. Flee: the samurai did break and flee; many defeated samurai fled and formed villages in distant places and some even fled to South East Asia.

Samurai Code of Honor. Suicide: some samurai would commit suicide at the death of the lord, as a voluntary custom, but many did not.

Samurai Code of Honor. Oaths: oaths were given and a samurai’s word was strong, but history is full of samurai who broke their word and changed sides, performed political murders and plainly went against their vows.

Samurai Code of Honor. Justice: samurai did attempt to keep the peace of the land, but it was not long before many of them wanted more power and war erupted again.

Samurai Code of Honor. Corruption: unfortunately, corruption goes hand in hand with power, and corruption can be found in samurai ways.

Samurai Code of Honor. Honour: a samurai was focused on honour but what we consider as honourable may not have been so to them. Honour is an ethical code and all ethical codes change with time.

The Samurai Code of Honor - photo 2

The Samurai Code of Honor

Consider this. When the Tokugawa Clan took over all of Japan, they had the obedience of the entire population and all families were subject to the shogun and owed him loyalty. But the shogun did not trust this ‘loyalty’ – rightly so, because most did not want to give it but were forced to by their defeat at the Battle of Sekigahara. Therefore, to ensure loyalty a hostage system was developed. Each great house had to put their close relatives and heir apparent in a palace in the capital city, and the warlords had to spend one year at home and one year in the capital. This meant that ‘loyalty’ was ensured but not given. Even with an oath, samurai loyalty was often not so strong when it came to power and climbing the hierarchical ladder.

The Samurai Code of Honor - photo 3

The Samurai Code of Honor

Loyalty, Loss and Honor. The Samurai Code of Honor

The subject of male bands bounded by loyalty is a complex one, and while there is no doubt that samurai did maintain honour, it must be realised that honour systems are also bound up with fear and loss. There is fear of retribution for lack of loyalty, and fear of the loss of lands and income. While the samurai did value honour, these two elements must be taken into account; often the samurai were looking out for themselves and trying to climb the social ladder.

The Samurai Code of Honor - photo 4

The Samurai Code of Honor

The Three Roles of the Samurai. The Samurai Code of Honor

We often imagine the samurai to be only warriors, but this is not quite the case. While all of them are considered warriors, there are actually three broad categories that they fall into:

 State administrators or public and private officials

 Agricultural overseers, local gentry and landowners

 Masters of war

The Samurai Code of Honor - photo 5

East Side and West Side. The Samurai Code of Honor

The USA has East v. West, the UK has North v. South, and likewise old Japan had its own version. The lineage for the Japanese Emperor is divided into Northern and Southern Dynasties, with some people still offering contention on this point 700 years after the fact. The samurai themselves used to divide between Eastern samurai and Western samurai. Here is an extract from a samurai from the east side who is talking about the difference between the two, and he is very biased about the ‘facts’:

Warriors of the East Side. The Samurai Code of Honor

Eastern landowning gentry have 500 mounted warriors each at their command

Mounted warriors of the east never fall from their horses

If the father or son of an eastern warrior falls, that warrior will ride over his corpse to get to the enemy

                       Warriors of the Western Side. The Samurai Code of Honor

If the father or son of a western warrior is killed, he will leave the battlefield and cry

If a western samurai army run out of food, they halt the war and return to plant more crops

In summer they are too hot and in winter they are too cold; they are soft indeed

The Problem with Inheritance. The Samurai Code of Honor

Feudal society has an extremely problematic and fundamental issue at its core, which is inheritance. Originally, samurai used to divide their land between all their children equally, splitting up the land and property. However, the power of the samurai was based on crop production, crop production is based on land ownership, and there is a certain amount needed to maintain life as a samurai: the land needed to produce enough profit to pay for armour, horses, weapons, servants, entertainment and all the other facets of court and a privileged life.

The Samurai Code of Honor - photo 6

The Samurai Code of Honor

However, mathematics defeated the samurai – as the population increased more samurai were created. If a father had four sons surviving him, then the land needed to support four new samurai. If they all had four sons who survived them, the same land now had to provide for sixteen samurai. Therefore the samurai were bent on invasion and land grabbing; without it, they could not exist. To counter this, the inheritance system changed and the eldest son took total control of the land and the position of retainer to the lord, and the ‘lesser’ sons took a livelihood from the land on a much smaller scale. This system allowed a clan to maintain its size and importance without dividing it up into too many branches. But, again, mathematics won out and the point came when there was just not enough land.

The Samurai Code of Honor - photo 7

The Samurai Code of Honor

Samurai would sell what land they had to produce cash flow to maintain a samurai lifestyle; they would pawn items and even take on jobs, manufacture small items or marry into rich merchant families, all to try to maintain the samurai lifestyle. Unfortunately, this story does not have a happy ending, as by the end of the samurai era, the average samurai was relatively poor in society, and many modern Japanese films are based on this idea of the declining and threadbare samurai trying to make ends meet in life. By the 1860s, the ways of the samurai were coming to an end and, while many powerful samurai clans still held large quantities of land, most samurai lived in castle towns on an ever-dwindling wage which just could not support them.

 

“Old Japan: Secrets from the Shores of the Samurai”

Antony Cummins

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