Samurai & Bushido: The Way of The Warrior

A depiction of Samurai and the weapons and armour they may have used. Image: Danny Choo, "Sucker Punch", CC BY-SA 2.0.

A depiction of Samurai and the weapons and armour they may have used.

Image: Danny Choo, "Sucker Punch", CC BY-SA 2.0.

INTRODUCTION

When one thinks of legendary swordsmen of the past, one name inevitably springs to mind: Samurai. The Samurai were warriors in premodern Japan, specifically classical and medieval Japan, who fought for and protected their warlords. An interesting thing to note is that Samurai included both men and womenThese warriors were extremely influential in Japanese culture. From the beginning of their rise to power to the height of their influence, the philosophies, values, and code of ethics of the Samurai, also known as Bushido, grew in importance and acceptance and slowly permeated the culture of mainstream Japanese society. These ideals practiced by the Samurai, originally specific to values a warrior should possess, slowly evolved into a philosophy and way of life that was practiced by non-combatants such as government officials, and even the common man. During their reign, the Samurai shaped Japanese culture, men and women of both the upper and lower classes, and indeed from all walks of life, in extraordinary ways. Therefore, the Samurai were very significant to Japanese history.

ORIGINS OF THE SAMURAI

The Samurai were Japanese warriors sometimes known as bushi. The word samurai has Chinese orgins and translates to “one who serves”. They were born into the aristocratic social class and allocated to the Japanese Imperial Court to protect the members within it. Due to the nature of the service that they provided, it further induced the superiority of the Samurai. 

However, the aristocracy soon found it difficult to control the whole of Japan using a centralized system of government, and soon delegated more power and responsibility to regional governors, with duties such as tax collection and administration. The Imperial Court then started to lose power as local governors grew strong. Ultimately, some local governors developed into daimyo (feudal lords who controlled certain self-governing territories).

After the Gempei Civil War (1180 - 1185 CE), Minamoto Yoritomo established Japan’s first feudal military government, known as the shogunate. The word shogunate is derived from the term shogun, which refers to a military commander. It marked the first official entry of the Samurai into positions in the Japanese government. Minamoto’s shogunate marked the start of Japan’s feudal period, which endured for 700 years.

 

 

Above is a slideshow of the timeline depicting the events that led to the rise of the Samurai. (Click the left and right buttons to scroll between images)

Timeline information taken from here

Image: Shaun, Jen, Phoebe, "Samurai Timeline", C.C BY 2.0

THE SAMURAI CODE OF HONOUR AND BUSHIDO

Samurai warriors were considered a social class and had many customs. They also had extensive war strategies and tactics. An early code of honor was kyuba no michi (the way of the bow and horse) or yumiya toru mi no narai (the practices of those who use the bow and arrow). Samurai were also known to be skilled archers, able to shoot on horseback.

A code of ethics which was the way of life for samurai was known as “Bushido”, which translates to “The Way of The Warrior” or “precepts of knighthood”. It a general sense, it can be compared to the notion of chivalry that medieval English knights embraced. Within the samurai class, the worst of them were slightly better than street thugs while the best were fiercely loyal to their masters and abided by Bushido strictly.

The principles of Bushido include "righteousness", "courage", "benevolence", "respect", "sincerity", "honour", "loyalty", and "self-control". Loyalty was especially important. Samurai were expected to be loyal to their masters above everything else.

Bushido was a philosophy which covered every aspect of a samurai’s life, for example the proper conduct of oneself in public, child rearing, proper attire, and so on.

Although written outside the relevant time period of the samurai's existence, Nitobe Inazo manages to transcribe clearly the eight virtues of Bushido in his 1899 book titled "Bushido: The Soul of Japan”. Amongst them was the virtue of “Politeness”, which went above and beyond outward display of courtesy and manners, but also what Nitobe terms as “benevolence”, which is to consider and prioritise the feelings of others, and not to be motivated just by a “fear of offending good taste”.

Another important virtue was that of “Honesty and Sincerity”. This virtue encouraged thriftiness and indulgence in luxury items were frowned upon. Children were brought up to be unconcerned about money and to disregard “the value of different coins”. Samurai were expected to live a simple life, and things like “the counting machine and abacus” were detested.

HISTORY OF BUSHIDO

Bushido as a philosophical concept, ideal and way of life began in the 8th century, when military men wrote books about sword use and mastery. They also included ethics and codes of behavior a warrior-poet was expected to embody, such as courage, literacy, and loyalty.

During the 13th to 16th centuries, Japanese literary works laud principles such as reckless courage, utmost loyalty and devotion to one’s master, and developing warriors on an intellectual basis.

The civil war known as the Gempai War (1180-1185) features prominently in literary works about Bushido. Historical figures from the war are held-up as exemplars that every warrior should aspire to become, as they possess ideal warrior attributes and virtues.

THE MACABRE COST OF DISHONOUR

The ethics of Bushido were highly important tenets that the Samurai governed their lives by. It largely influenced the ethical, political and cultural sphere of ancient Japan in many ways observable as well as many cultures around them. In essence, the way of the warrior was so ingrained in the Samurai that any breach of the code was oftentimes deemed as a sacrilege, and was irreprehensible. 

One of the most severe contraventions of Bushido was that of sowing dishonour. Understandably, one would surely be curious enough to ask: what exactly did the Samurai constitute as an act of dishonour, given that the norms and cultures of today are widely different from the age of the samurai? There were a few ways in which a Samurai could become dishonoured, primarily centered around the feeling of shame, such as committing regrettable acts of dishonesty, openly displaying fear in battle, or even disownment from their Daimyos. To a true samurai, there was only one viable answer to redeem themselves from such states of disgrace, and that was Seppuku.

Seppuku, or “cutting the belly” when translatedwas a form of Japanese ritual suicide involving the self-disembowelment of the dishonoured samurai. Usually, the most common form of this ritual would involve the Samurai first using his tanto(short sword) to perform a horizontal slice and opening his own abdomen, followed by a final, decapitating blow to the back of the neck by a trusted friend or servant wielding a katana(sword). Perceivably, the intent of such a ritual was to ensure that the samurai regained his honour in death as well as the successful deliverance of his spirit to the afterlife without complications arising from his dishonourable actions. An example of a renowned samurai who had carried out Seppuku was the aforementioned Minamoto no Yoshitsune,  who engaged in it swiftly after taking the lives of his wife and daughter when he was betrayed by his supposed guardian tasked with sheltering him during his period of exile.  

“In many cases, a friend or servant would serve as a second, and would ritually decapitate the samurai to provide release from the terrible pain of the abdominal cuts. The second needed to be very skillful with his sword to achieve the perfect decapitation, known as kaishaku, or “embraced head.” The trick was to leave a small flap of skin attached at the front of the neck, so that the head would fall forward and look like it was being cradled by the dead samurai’s arms.”
— Excerpt describing the procession of a Seppuku ritual.


It should be noted that although the Samurai warriors were primarily men, the grim consequences of ritual suicide were not exclusive only to the male half of the spectrum. The wives of dishonoured samurai, or warrior women who were of similar social class were also expected to take their own lives in a specific manner to preserve their honour, or to avoid being violated by the enemy or other men. However, their method of suicide was typically different than that of the men known as Jigai, or “slashing the neck” when translated.While the samurai men were expected to be stoic and repentant in nature while committing the act of disembowelling themselves, the women were instead expected to remain dignified and graceful in death. Samurai women or wives who decided to take their own lives often bound their legs together before taking a tanto to their necks and slicing their jugulars, taking their own lives. This was to ensure that the woman did not leave the world in an undignified manner, but instead, passed away in a graceful kneeling position, often with her back to the entrance of the door to preserve this image right until the moment people discovered her corpse. 

In jigai, women had a method in which death would occur relatively quickly. The nature of the wound was not likely to cause an ugly distortion of the features or disarrangement of the limbs that would offend the woman’s dignity after death. The dagger was used to cut the jugular vein.
— Excerpt describing the procession of a Jigai ritual.

Amidst the gruesome details of this procession, there is a very real and observable sense of elaborate liturgical culture embedded in the committing of Seppuku/Jigai, which in a morbid sense of phrasing, was a suiting condemnation for Samurai or their wives going against the revered ethics of Bushido. The ceremonious nature of taking one’s life in the samurai culture is perfectly displayed in the clear contrasts between the suicide rituals of the men and women, indicating a clear intent in the act, as well as a desired impact upon the world resulting from the death of the dishonoured. Intriguingly, this highlights the absolute formality in philosophies by which the Samurai class lived and fought by back in their day.

IN CONCLUSION

The Samurai were intrinsically tied to the ethics of Bushido, and this is clearly reflected in the formalities that they took upon themselves to fulfil. They were ready to both live and die by the way of the warrior, and formalised many aspects of their culture in how they subjected themselves to the whims of their ethical beliefs. In summary, the Samurai were one of the most influential warrior cultures which dominated ancient Japan as well as the nations they came into contact with during the time. Their ethics permeated the demeanour of their society and translated into their actions in the form of warfare, politics and tradition, shaping the history of their nation in the many hundreds of years that the Samurai flourished, and hence, changing the fate of Japan forever.