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can go to anywhere on the site (sometimes to whole sections
with dozens of pages) they each open in a new window, so
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Samurai, Japan's warrior class, ran the country from the late 12th to late
19th Centuries. They therefore have a huge place in the national psyche, for
good and ill, and play a big part in the history of its arts, as consumers,
tastemakers, artists and subjects of stories and paintings. Their modern
place in the culture has been compared to that of cowboys in the US, and
while there is some validity in this, it's worth remembering that they
dominated the country for seven hundred years, which means their actual
place in Japan's history is incomparably larger than that of cowboys in
It's hard to trace their origins.
The earliest groups of warriors in
Japan most probably came from Korea, and fought on horseback mainly with
bows and arrows. The sword was a minor weapon in those days. During the
Heian period, warrior clans became locally dominant - they were put in
place by the court to keep order and collect taxes. The loyalty-centred
ethos of the samurai was starting to emerge during this period, but it
seems not to have been discussed much.
It should be noted that the supposed ethics as they appear in fiction
don't necessarily match the facts. This was a time when sneak attacks
were common, and the formerly despised tactic of shooting at horses
started to be widely used. The proper mode of combat was to arrange a
time and place for the fight; when everyone was ready, they started
with arrows, then charged forwards, each shouting his name and lineage
and achievements, so as to pair up in individual combat with a compatible
opponent. The legends of loyalty unto death are supported by plenty of
history, but there were also many cases of families agreeing to split up
and join both sides of a fight, so as to be sure the family would have
representation on the winning side, and could continue to thrive.
Suicide by disembowelment, seppuku, started around now (hara-kiri is the
vulgar term). Warriors killed themselves to avoid capture/surrender, to
mitigate disgrace, but also as a criticism of their lord. Note that
capture and surrender were not only dishonourable, but led to terrible
torture, so it can be seen as a pragmatic step as much as noble one.
Since seppuku led to slow, painful death, a second was soon added to
behead the person - as well as finishing them off, this was also done at
the first sign of hesitation or fear, to avoid a shameful death.
Civil wars in the 12th Century ended with Minamoto Yoritomo becoming the
first shogun, military commander, from 1185. From then on, power resided
largely with the shogun, and on a local level with the daimyo, regional
samurai lords, rather than the emperor and his court, who for most of the
next seven centuries were figureheads, though very important ones.
Whenever there was conflict, each side would claim to be acting in the
interests of the emperor.
It's worth noting that Zen arrived in Japan about six years after the
samurai took control, and Zen was adopted by this class, a tie that
remained for centuries to come. The link is discussed on another page
(loads in a separate window, so you can continue here).
The place of the samurai in the national culture was cemented by two
attempts by China's Mongol rulers, then led by Khubilai Khan and
dominating most of Asia and part of Europe, to invade Japan. In 1274,
China sent something like 40,000 troops. A third were lost in storms at
sea, and the rest were driven off by 10,000 samurai. Seven years later,
China sent a far larger force - I've seen 100,000 and even 140,000 quoted.
Again, they suffered huge losses from typhoons at sea - this was termed
the kami-no-kaze, wind of the gods - and the Japanese had 40,000 warriors
ready this time, and won again. The Chinese, as well as the numerical
majority, had gunpowder and cannon, so these were remarkable victories,
the stuff of legend ever since.
This first shogunate, the Kamakura period, ended in civil war and a very
brief restoration of imperial rule, but this didn't last. The next shogun
moved the capital to Muromachi, and times changed. Before this, most
samurai were illiterate and totally uncultured - they were soldiers only.
From the Muromachi period, the idea that samurai should be cultured began.
It was an ideal, and it's unclear what proportion of the samurai had any
cultural accomplishments, but there were some notable samurai artists,
many in styles consciously opposed to the effete arts of the Heian
The Edo period
Many of the great samurai stories are based at the end of a Century of
decaying control and local war, which started late in the 15th Century.
The country had no central rule, and in a few decades at the end of the
16th Century, three great leaders changed this. Oda Nobunaga reunited
over half of the country; Toyotomi Hideyoshi finished the job; he was
succeeded by Tokugawa Ieyasu, who started what is among the most stable
periods of peace and central rule that any government has ever achieved
anywhere in the world. The Edo period saw a few highly original devices to
Rikyu, the tea ceremony and the politics of this time|
Castles of the late 16th C
The trouble had always come from local daimyo gathering power and armies.
In the Edo period, every daimyo was obliged to maintain one residence at
home and another in Edo, the new capital (nowadays called Tokyo), which
quickly grew from a fishing village to the biggest city in the world
within a century - then doubled in population over the following century.
The Edo household had to include the family, making them convenient
hostages in case of any trouble. The daimyo were obliged to alternate
their attendance, spending half the year in Edo, half in their home area,
which limited their ability to build plots. In addition, moving a big
household across the country and maintaining a second lavish home - it had
to be expensive, to impress - crippled their financial ability to build
So there was peace, but there was also the odd situation of the warrior
caste being in charge, but having no one to fight (Japan showed no real
signs of ambitions abroad until the 20th Century, bar one expedition to
Korea which didn't seem to be about taking over). They became administrators
more than soldiers, adopting many Confucian ideas. They were also more
cultured in this period, taking part in more artistic activities:
calligraphy, painting, flower arranging, the tea ceremony, poetry and so on.
Some of the old martial ways decayed to symbols - seppuku still existed, but
it was sufficient to simply scratch the stomach before the beheading.
the Porcelain War|
Japan also went into seclusion for most of this period. Relations with China
had often been turbulent, but the arrival in the 16th Century of Europeans
brought major changes. Christianity's impact was always limited, but the
arrival of guns made huge changes to the samurai - a bunch of recruits with
guns were more than a match for samurai with swords. The wars that led up to
the Edo period involved hundreds of thousands of guns. From the 17th Century,
Japan closed its borders, with a couple of tightly policed exceptions.
This isolation was very successful for two and a half centuries, until
American gunships arrived. The culture had stagnated, and it was very quickly
clear that the fighting technology of late 19th Century America outclassed
that of the samurai. The shogunate fell, the emperor took charge again, and
the samurai quickly vanished. Some of the ideas survived. The divine wind that
helped repel the Mongol invaders was invoked again in the kamikaze pilots of
World War II. Perhaps the last gasp, outside fictional representations, was
the novelist Yukio Mishima's public seppuku in 1970, in protest against the
weakness of the post-war Japanese state.
Samurai in the arts
There have been a few notable artists of samurai caste, such as Musashi, Gyokudo and
Hiroshige. For a long time, samurai played a fairly small part in stories and visual arts.
There were plenty of stories, but most were histories, or fictionalised
versions of history. They became a major subject in the Edo period, particularly
in the kabuki theatre. In turn, kabuki was a major subject for print artists,
and this spun off into a strand of samurai prints, but many were explicitly tied
to kabuki plays. Later on, samurai became a major subject in the movies, most
notably in a series of magnificent films by Akira Kurosawa - returning to the
cowboy comparisons in my opening paragraph, it's worth noting that he was a big
fan and student of John Ford's cowboy movies, and of course Seven Samurai and
Yojimbo were both remade as major westerns, the latter by Sergio Leone, who
derived much of his sense of pace from Kurosawa. Apart from some post-war years
when samurai comics were banned, they were also one of the great genres in manga,
and one can learn more about samurai from reading the comics by the team of Kazuo
Koike and Goseki Kojima than from most history books.
Musashi, painter, greatest warrior ever|
sport comics as samurai substitute
Kamui, a comic
Koike & Kojima's comics
Samurai attitudes to women and sex
Samurai, especially in the Kamakura period, thought women very inferior. They
were needed for having children, but love was for other males. There are
similarities here with Sparta and Prussia, where the warrior class similarly
believed that lovers would fight hardest for each other, so homosexual
relationships were positively encouraged. This was arguably the closest you
will find in Japanese culture to the west's ideas of romantic love - this idea
barely features at all in stories of men and women. These relationships were
most commonly between a samurai and an 'apprentice', so they were also a way of
passing on skills.