China and East Asia

The samurai in fact and fiction

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samuraiThe samurai, or what the Japanese refer to as bushi, first rose to prominence during the Kamakura period, 1185–1333 CE, when the shoguns established themselves as Japan’s rulers. The samurai were soldiers who helped enforce the peace and secure people’s property. Often their services took the form of protection rackets, meaning that the people who refused to pay for their help were intimidated and threatened. The wars that took place at this time are perhaps better described as “skirmishes,” and before the engagements the participants would read out their lineages to make sure that they fought someone of the same status as themselves. But the samurai were also known to practice and to patronize the arts, and many art forms we today think of as quintessentially Japanese were first developed among them – including No theater, tea ceremony, haiku poetry, and of course martial arts such as archery and swordsmanship. Many samurai were Zen Buddhists, a version of the teaching which emphasized meditation and stoicism in the face of death.

During the Sengoku period, 1467-1573 CE, this chivalric military culture was replaced by widespread bloodshed as the samurai came to make up the foot-soldiers of the vast armies that were pitted against each other. Yet when peace broke out in 1600 these soldiers were left unemployed. Some – perhaps a quarter of them – were made into bureaucrats in the new Tokugawa regime, others worked for the daimyo, and others again became ronin, masterless samurai, who roamed the roads of Japan looking for work and for adventure. Ironically, it was only now that the samurai came to constitute itself as a distinct social class. By recognizing only some families as proper samurai, the Tokugawa rulers reduced the number of soldiers in the country, and by enforcing the provision that only samurai could carry arms, they reduced the number of weapons. During the Tokugawa period the samurai class counted perhaps 10 percent of Japan’s population. The samurai were abolished in 1873, when Japan established a conscripted army, and their titles and privileges were exchanged for government bonds.

The code of conduct of the samurai — bushido, “the way of the warrior” — has had a profound impact on Japanese culture. According to this ethic, loyalty is the supreme value, and a good samurai should unquestioningly follow the wishes of his master, even if this implies certain death. Furthermore, a proper samurai should be prepare to commit seppuku — suicide by slashing the stomach — if he is unable to carry out his duties. The most distinctive feature of a samurai’s appearance was the top-knot in which his hair was tied, and the two swords — the long takana and the shorter wakizashi — which he carried in his belt.

Yet the notion of bushido, understood as a distinct chivalric code, appeared only towards the end of the nineteenth-century, in the discourse of nationalistic Japanese politicians who demanded unquestionable loyalty from a by now increasingly unruly population. Meanwhile, Europeans and North Americans learned about the samurai above all from reading Inazo Nitobe’s Bushido: The Soul of Japan, first published in 1908. Nitobe was a diplomat, a Christian and a graduate of Johns Hopkins University, and he wrote the book in English as a way of teaching westerners about Japanese values and in order to contribute to inter-cultural understanding. Yet in the 1930s, the book was translated into Japanese and used in Japanese schools as a way to instill martial values in the younger generation.

Since 1945, the world of the samurai has been a staple of Japanese films and TV dramas. The artistically most significant of this output are the films directed by Akita Kurosawa, and his leading actor, Toshihiro Mifune, with his physical way of acting, has come to personify the way the samurai talked and carried themselves. Kurosawa has both influenced, and been influenced by, cowboy movies, and there are obvious similarities between the two genres. Kurosawa’s “The Seven Samurai,” 1954, was made into “The Magnificent Seven” in 1960, starring Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen and Charles Bronson, and his “Yojimbo,” 1961, was made into “A Fistful of Dollars,” 1964, starring Clint Eastwood. In both cases, entire scenes were lifted from Kurosawa’s originals.