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Samurai Japan

Short History of Japan

  At the far edge of the world lay a group of islands that had for centuries been shrouded in mystery. Here a society of warriors ruled, even higher than emperor (the descendant of the sun himself). The people of this island lived a life of isolation with little contact from outsiders, and they were happy to keep it that way.

The people who live here call their island NipphonOur story of Japan picks up during the day of Samurai. Despite all of the Hollywoodhypeaboutbutt kicking ninjas and samurai who would rather disembowel themselves

, the origin of the sun. The Chinese called it the island of Wa. Columbus searched for it by the name of Cipangu. Today, it is known as Japan.than

live in shame, you might be surprised at how little people understand about this period of Japanese history.

the sun goddess Amaterasu) surrounded himself with powerful families who competed for his attention. These families often went to ridiculous lengths to ensure that they were in a position to catch the emperor's ear. Over time, this friendly competition led to not-so-friendly civil war between two rival clans: the Minamoto and the Fujiwara. fromThe medieval era in Japan starts in the year 1185 (around the time of the European crusades) when civil war and corruption had weakened the country. The Emperor (a descendant




For centuries the Japanese had been ruled by an all-powerful emperor who claimed to be a descendant of none other than the sun goddess Ameterasu. The Emperor and his family made up the vast aristocracy who produced nothing and lived a life of absolute leisure. The daily life of a Japanese noble could be very dull.

At the top was the Emperor who held onto his title but served only a ceremonial function (until 1868 when the Meiji Restoration got rid of the feudal system). The Shogun ruled in the name of the emperor and his word was absolute. However, just because he was didn't mean that he didnt surround himself with the finer things in life like music and poetry. Poetry was seen as an art form and a great poet was someone who could take a few sentences and bring people to the brink of tears (or joy).

A powerful military leader named Yorimoto (from the Fujiwara clan) won and forced the emperor to give up his powers and rule as a ceremonial figurehead. The real power now lay with Yorimoto who held the first ever title of Shogun Barbarian conquering supreme general. Try putting that on your nameplate. Yorimoto allowed the son of the sun (the emperor that is) to rule in name only. Meanwhile Yorimoto shook things up by dividing the land up into districts each ruled by loyal followers called a Daimyo. Voilà! Feudalism was born in Japan. Of course, like most things Japanese, the idea of feudalism had been practiced in China for centuries before it finally came to Japan. However, like most things foreign, the Japanese have a way of making them uniquely Japanese.

For 700 years Japan would be ruled by the strongest ruling Daimyo family. When that Daimyo became weak or corrupt the other Daimyo thought nothing of switching their alliances to put them in a better position. This period of Japan was a time of frequent wars (with a few decades of peace thrown in every now and then).



The Skinny on the Samurai

Until the introduction of the European musket in the 16th century, (1500-1599) the weapons of the samurai were his two swords, leather  plated armor, a helmet, and a bow and quiver if he was trained as an archer.

The sword was the most important weapon for a samurai. In fact, some believed it held his soul. The samurai never unsheathed his sword when not in battle. To do so was considered extremely rude. When entering another samurai house you were expected to leave your long sword at the door but were permitted to keep your short sword with you. A peasant could be killed without question for possessing or handling a samurais' sword.

Samurai carried not one but two swords. The long blade was called a katana and the Shoto is the short blade. Anything smaller than a Shoto would be called a tanto (knife).


Japanese boys (and sometimes girls) could become samurai from any family. A boy chosen for samurai training would leave his family around the age of 7 to train with a teacher. The bond between student and teacher was strong and the student was expected to master skills of sword fighting as well as mental games that taught critical thinking. A teacher might sneak up on their student and hit them with a stick to enforce the lesson that a samurai must always be on his guard.


Zen Buddhism also was a major focus in samurai training to teach boys how to focus their mind. Between the ages of 12-18 a samurai in training would attend a ceremony called genbuku where he would receive his sword.

Bushido: The Way of the Warrior

Like code of chivalry that told the knights in medieval how to behave, the samurai (known as bushi) also lived by a code of conduct called Bushido- the way of the warrior.

The code of Bushido was simple. A samurai's duty was to serve and obey his Daimyo until death. The Samurai was a part of the ruling warrior class and was expected to help keep the peasants in line, make sure that the harvest was collected and to protect their Daimyo's land from invaders. The Daimyo controlled every aspect of the people under him. Before someone could get married or leave his territory they had to get his permission. Any reflection of disloyalty or cowardice was a reflection on the Daimyo. To dishonor your Daimyo is to bring shame upon your whole family.

Shame could be passed down for generations and therefore many samurai chose to commit the ultimate sacrifice- seppuku- rather than bring shame upon themselves. Seppuku involved a complex ceremony where a samurai would face a painful death with absolute calm. Only samurai could carry the two swords- one long and one short. During Seppuku the samurai would slice open his belly in a L-shape pattern, being careful to show no pain. Almost instantly, another warrior (probably a close friend) would act as second to cut off the head of the dying samurai to avoid prolonged pain. In this way, a disgraced samurai could ensure that his wife and children would not be outcasts.

 the Heian royal court

Fight Science: Samurai Katana
Ninja, Ronin, and Other Cool Stuff


A samurai without a Lord was considered to be one of the lowest ranks in feudal Japan. A samurai's only mission was to serve his Lord and to not have a Lord implied that you were dishonorable or had abandoned your duties. Such samurai (known as Ronin) existed throughout Japan . Ronin often hired themselves out to Daimyo as mercenary soldiers but were never fully trusted. Ronin often lived in remote communities.

Some highly specialized Ronin (and samurai) were like the Green Berets are today in America. These special ops forces were sent (often on suicide missions) to assassinate enemy Daimyo, engage in spy missions, sabotage, or in some way make life difficult for the enemy. These elite fighters are known as Shinobi- one who steals away. You may never of heard of Shinobi but you probably have heard of the more popular (even though it was never used during their time) name of Ninja.


In contrast to a samurai, who fought by strict rules of honor, the ninja could pretty much do whatever was necessary to get the job done. The Ninjas (like other Ronin) lived in their own separate communities with their own rank, and peasants. They were technically outside of the samurai system and therefore illegal. However, in a world filled with castles defended by big walls, sometimes a late night poisoning gets the job done better than a 6 month siege.


Even though most people think of Ninjas as wearing black suits and face masks this attire is best left for covert night jobs. Most ninja were hired not for assassinations but for getting a little intelligence from the enemy. Walking into a castle wearing a ninja suit is one sure fire way to get yourself arrested. Many ninja were skilled at the art of conversation and made friends with enemies in high places. There they earned the trust of their target and was able to safely deliver the intel back to the Daimyo who hired them. In this way, many women served as ninja. Often they would work in tea houses or as geisha to entertain and get the gossip from samurai who had a little too much sake to drink.


Hemeji Castle
Japan has its own version of Spiderman. That’s because Ninja's can climb walls! Of course, they haven’t been bitten by mutant spiders. Instead, they use a weapon called shuko, which mean “tiger’s claws” in English.

Buddhist Warrior Monks

& the Art of Zen 


Despite their violent career choices, most samurai lived a life of quiet contemplation. A samurai was expected to neither yell nor argue nor get excessively drunk (at least that was the aim). Many samurai found solace in Zen Buddhism which makes the story of the samurai so very interesting. Where else do you have warriors who bravely slit their own bellies and are proud to be caught arranging flowers?


Buddhism came to Japan from China around 500 CE. The Chinese style of Buddhism called Chan focused heavily on meditation and quiet reflection as a way of reaching nirvana. This style became known as Zen when it reached Japan. Zen Buddhism focuses on meditation. But the Japanese have given Buddhism a distinctly Japanese flavor. Samurai warriors would spend hour sitting in absolute silence either staring at a wall, arranging flowers, painting natural landscapes, or having tea.


Entire rituals with their specific rules evolved from Zen Buddhism. The goal of arranging flowers, or painting a mountain, or drinking tea is not to just be quiet but to focus all of your energy, your entire being on this one act. So why would a warrior care so much about being calm? Isnt their job to kill people? A battlefield is chaotic place where one wrong move or look can send you back to be reincarnated. By being able to control your thoughts you become a better warrior and a nicer person. However, when it came time to die, it was seen as honorable to die silently and with dignity. "He died screaming like a little girl" was never a good epithet to send home to the family.


Of course if warriors who meditated, arranged flowers, and attended tea ceremonies doesn't seem strange to you then perhaps warrior monks might. The idea of fighting for god is nothing new; generally, Buddhism is known for its peaceful nature. Many Buddhists refuse to eat meat because it involves taking a life. But in feudal Japan a whole class of warrior monks arose, called sohei. The sohei at first armed themselves out of protection. By the 900s, they had become full-fledged armies who fought against other Buddhist temples with their own soehi army. Many of the Soehi allied with any Daimyo who might give power or land to their temple. The sohei earned the nickname Akuso or 'evil monk'.


In the 1500s the era of the Soehi came to an end when the Shogun Oda Nobunaga decided to wage an all-out war against the troublesome monks. Nobunaga even went so far as to allow foreigners (the Portuguese who had come to trade) into the country and a new religion- Christianity.  Nobunaga hoped to weaken the power of the Buddhist monks, and for a while it worked.

A Real Man's Samurai... Woodcut showing a Samurai doing flower arrangement
Sohei in training
The Merchant in Medieval Japan


Japan has had a long and rocky relationship with its larger neighbors across the sea. China looked down on Japan as an inferior land of barefooted barbarians. The Japanese in turn saw their island as the birth of the sun, and viewed outsiders as barbarians. Both nations also went through long periods of isolationism where a distrust of foreigners ran high. This was followed by a period of openness when trade flourished.


The Japanese have made selective borrowing an art. From China, the Japanese have borrowed many ideas and inventions from Confucianism & Buddhism to silk, chopsticks, and gun powder. For centuries China has been Japan’s biggest trading partner–up until the 20th century when the United States took China’s place. Chinese pottery, silks, bamboo, copper and iron kettles were sent east and in return the Japanese exported beautiful ceremonial fans and handcrafted samurai swords.


The Japanese also borrowed from China its prejudice against the merchant classes. The Japanese believed that the merchant classes were parasites, because they neither produced food like the peasants nor protect the country like the samurai. The merchants grew rich from selling other people’s goods and charging interest on money they loaned out.


It’s a bit ironic that merchants held such low status in feudal Japan because their trade increased the wealth of the country and brought new goods and luxuries that the samurai depended on. Merchants sometimes also lent money to help pay for a Daimyos’ army or building project. However, merchants and their families were not trusted and so were restricted from owning land, living in certain parts of the city, or having a title of honor. The biggest irony is that merchants paid few taxes because their work was not seen as important while the farmers paid heavy taxes because their work was important.


In order to obtain a permit, Japanese merchants were required to sail in domestically-built ships such as these. One assumes to make them easily identifiable by Japanese port authorities.

The Samurai ruled Japan until the mid-1800s when centuries of Japanese isolation was brought down by American warships with big guns.


The revolution that followed returned the emperor back to a place of power. It also put Japan on the path to becoming the world's fastest-growing industrial superpower.


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