Few countries have a warrior tradition as long and exciting as Japan. It is a tradition found in the Samurai, the loyal and self-sacrificing knight of ancient Japan. The Samurai is a valiant warrior who can both appreciate the beauty of nature in that of a rose blossom but will also kill or die for his master in an instant. This well-rounded warrior was the ruling class of Japan for almost seven hundred years. He fought for control of his country and to keep Japan free from outside influences. (Turnbull 1)
This aristocratic warrior class arose during the 12th century wars between the Taira and Minamoto clans and was consolidated in the Tokugawa period. Samurai were privileged to wear two swords, and at one time had the right to cut down any commoner who offended them. They cultivated the martial virtues, indifference to pain or death, and unfailing loyalty to their overlords. Samurai were the dominant group in Japan. Under the Tokugawa shogunate, the samurai were removed from direct control of the villages, moved into the domain castle towns, and given government stipends.
They were encouraged to take up bureaucratic posts. The Hagakure, has been dubbed the book of the samurai. It was written after a century of peace around 1716. It came to be the guide of samurai ethics until the end of the feudal period. Its short passages reflect and outline the qualities that make a samurai. Yamamoto Tsunetomo expresses in the hagakure the framework and mindset of being a samurai. “Although it stands to reason that a samurai should be mindful of the Way of the samurai, it would seem that we are all negligent.
Consequently, if someone were to ask, what is the true meaning of the Way of the Samurai? ‘ the person who should be able to answer promptly is rare. This is because it has not been established in one’s mind beforehand. From this, one’s unmindfulness of the Way can be known. Negligence is an extreme thing. ” (Wilson, 17) “The Way of the Samurai is found in death. When it comes to either/or, there is only the quick choice of death. It is not particularly difficult. Be determined and advance. To say that dying without reaching one’s aim is to die a dog’s death is the frivolous way of sophisticates.
When pressed with the choice of life or death, it is not necessary to gain one’s aim. We all want to live. And in large part we make our logic according to what we like. But not having attained our aim and continuing to live is cowardice. This is a thin dangerous line. To die without gaining one’s aim is a dog’s death and fanaticism. There is no shame to this. This is the substance of the Way of the Samurai. If by setting one’s heart right every morning and evening, one is able to live as though his body were already dead, he gains freedom in the Way.
His whole life will be without blame, and he will succeed in his calling. (Wilson, 17) The samurai had extreme religious ideals. One samurai in particular, Tsunetomo, he began to despair of ever gaining a position as a retainer, and her began to visit a man who was to have no small influence on his life. This was the Zen Buddhist priest Tannen (? – 1680), a man of unbending integrity and will, who had resigned his post as head priest at the major Nabeshima temple as a protest against the death sentence of another priest, and when recalled, refused to return.
Zen Buddhism and the samurai had been closely related since the thirteenth century in Japan, when the Hojo regents had discovered that its vitality and rejection of life as an object of special craving had much to offer the warrior. Tannen had his own ideas concerning the relationship of Zen and the warriors. “He declares that religious matters are for old men, and if young samurai learn about Buddhism it will only bring them disaster, for they will begin to look at the world from two sets of values rather than one. ” (Wilson, 13) The warriors of early Japan bore only a passing resemblance to the later samurai.
Weaponry and armor were of a distinctly Chinese flavor, and the earliest warriors carried shields, a device evidently out of vogue even before the Heian period. Some of our knowledge of the weapons and protection the early Japanese warrior carried comes from artifacts excavated from the tombs constructed in the 4th and 5th centuries to house departed royalty. Another, just as valuable resource are the haniwa, which were clay statues evidently used as grave markers. A good number of these haniwa depict warriors, and these provide us some insight into the nature of home-grown’ Japanese armor of the time.
The horse was imported to Japan sometime in the 4th or 5th century, and quickly became a valuable commodity. Also brought over from the continent were Keiko, or suits of lamellar scaled armor. This type, which is traditionally associated with horsemen, provided the foundation from which the classic patterns of samurai armor construction would build. Just as important is the samurai’s weaponry is the code of ethics by which they lived by which is known as the code of Bushido. This term refers to the moral code principals that developed among the samurai class of Japan, on a basis of national tradition influenced by Zen and Confucianism.
The first use of the term apparently occurred during the civil war period of the 16th century; its precise content varied historically as samurai standards evolved. Its one unchanging ideal was martial spirit, including athletic and military skills as well as fearless facing of the enemy in battle. Frugal living, kindness and honesty were also highly regarded. Like Confucianism, Bushido required filial piety; but, originating in the feudal system, it also held that supreme honor was to serve one’s lord unto death.
If these obligations conflicted, the samurai was bound by loyalty to his lord despite the suffering he might cause to his parents. The final rationalization of Bushido thought occurred during the Tokugawa period, when Yamaga Soko equated the samurai with the Confucian “superior man” and taught that his essential function was to exemplify virtue to the lower classes. Without disregarding the basic Confucian virtue, benevolence, Soko emphasized the second virtue, righteousness, which he interpreted as “obligation” or “duty”.
This strict code of honor, affecting matters of life and death, demanded conscious choice and so fostered individual initiative while yet reasserting the obligations of loyalty and filial piety. Obedience to authority was stressed, but duty came first even if it entailed violation of statue law. In such an instance, the true samurai would prove his sincerity and expiate his crime against the government by subsequently taking his own life. By mid-19th century, Bushido standards had become the general ideal, and the legal abolition of the samurai class in 1871 made Bushido even more the property of the entire nation.
In the public education system, with the emperor replacing the feudal lord as the object of loyalty and sacrifice, Bushido became the foundation of ethical training. As such, it contributed both to the arise of Japanese nationalism and to the strengthening of wartime civilian morale up to 1945. The term “Samurai” means those who serve. These mystical knights served many functions in Japanese society. During time of war, they were the masters of the battlefield. In peace they were the administrators and the aristocrats. As statesmen, soldiers, and businessmen, former samurai took the lead in building modern Japan.