Saturday, 16 Jan 2021

Secrets of the Samurai. The Way of the Warrior

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Secrets of the Samurai
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The Samurai

The Way of the Warrior

Everybody has heard of bushido – the way of the warrior – but many people think of it as a modern invention because a man called Nitobe Inazo wrote the book Bushido in English in 1900 in response to questions about society in Japan. However, that is simply not true. While the details of this chivalric code may have changed over time, the concept of bushido dates back many hundreds of years and is sometimes referred to simply as budo, a word that today has come to mean martial arts. The earliest record I have personally found for the term bushido is in a c.1495 collection of poetry by Monk Sogi. The ideograms for bushido are 武士道 but, when written down in poem form, the word bushi, meaning warrior, changes its pronunciation to mononofu and do changes to michi, so that the correct amount of syllables are used in the poem. This means that while the ideograms and meaning are the same, the reading changes from bushido to mononofu no michi.

Secrets of the Samurai. The Way of the Warrior - photo 1

Secrets of the Samurai

The Etiquette of Swords

A samurai had to take his katana off his waist when he entered a house and hold it in hand. It was then placed in the correct storage space. At times he also kept it at his side.

Secrets of the Samurai. The Way of the Warrior - photo 2

Secrets of the Samurai

The Samurai at Dinner

A retainer was a samurai who served another (normally samurai) master. They formed a bond of master–retainer in which the lower person served with obedience, forming a gap between them at societal level. However, when dining together, the conversation was free; the retainer might talk to whomever he wished and be familiar and merry. When the meal was over, his attitude returned to one of service and the gap was established again.

Secrets of the Samurai. The Way of the Warrior - photo 3

Secrets of the Samurai

The Golden Age of Barrierless Society

At the start of the rise of the samurai, between the 1100s and the 1400s, the family a samurai was born into was extremely important. By the mid 1500s, almost anyone could rise to be a great lord, and even merchants became great samurai lords, making this era the greatest time for anyone with ambition. However, even at this point people had to make up false geneographies to ‘prove’ they were of samurai origin and, not only that, but that they descended from an imperial line by being a part of the great samurai foundation families.

Secrets of the Samurai. The Way of the Warrior - photo 4

Secrets of the Samurai

Men in Armour

Films and the media often portray the samurai without their armour in the period of peace – the last 250 years of their rule – and in film after film the samurai walk around in the plain clothes of the day. However, even in the last era of the samurai the warriors of Japan still donned their armour for parades, ceremonies, when performing certain duties and in other situations. Even though the samurai were at relative peace for generations, their armour was still a major factor and they would have been used to wearing it – if, of course, they owned it.

Secrets of the Samurai. The Way of the Warrior - photo 5

Secrets of the Samurai

Where Did the Guns Go?

The general public will say that the soul of a samurai is his sword, but the more enlightened reader will know that gun production was massive in Japan during the second half of the 1500s and that guns played a large role in the unification of the country – a role that cannot be ignored and a move that changed the face of samurai warfare. In 1600 the country entered into relative peace (it was actually a dictatorship, to be fair) and it is then that we get the age of the samurai with two swords at his side, so the question that springs up is, as Japan was a massive producer of guns, where are they all? Well, they became very restricted and their power had been proven, so the country returned to its glory ideas of the samurai with older weapons, such as the bow and the spear.

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Around the time of the fifth shogun – also known as the dog shogun – the gun became an item reserved for the powerful, and strict control was used to stop uprisings. In the 1500s and early 1600s, Japanese guns were of similar quality to Western versions, but because of the closing of Japan, and only a small amount of trade being allowed, and with the restriction on guns, the development of firearms did not match that in the West, so, of course, when the West returned, over 200 years later, the difference was manifest.

Kill Me if You Can

One later account of samurai vengeance states that if a brother or the like was killed, a samurai had to kill the killer in revenge. The samurai would then take the head of their family member’s assassin and place it on the grave of the victim, but they would leave their personal mark such as a small knife (possibly a kozuka) which they stuck through the ear of the severed head, meaning that any family member of the samurai who had just been killed would know how to follow up on the next stage of revenge – and so forming lasting blood feuds.

Categorising Allies

There were some basic terms used in the samurai world to categorise those who were allies:

Kamon – family members and relatives

Fudai – families who had served for many generations

Tozama – families outside of direct control.

After 1600 and the Battle of Sekigahara, these terms took on additional meanings. As the country was in the power of the Tokugawa family, almost all clans became generational retainers, so this division came to be known as those who did or did not serve the Tokugawa family in their rise to power, meaning that some samurai were born on the wrong side of a war that was long over and over which they had no control.

Secrets of the Samurai. The Way of the Warrior - photo 7

Secrets of the Samurai


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

Antony Cummins

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