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Samurai fact: Japanese warrios and Bushido 侍と武士道英語

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What does the word “Samurai 侍” mean?

大河内傳次郎

The word “Samurai” is pronounced “Samorau” in Nara period. Samorau is divided into two words “Sa” and “Morau.” Morau means “wait by side of the nobles to have an order” and Sa is a prefix to pronounce a word fluently.

On the other hand, the Kanji “侍” is also divided into “人” and “寺.” 寺 meant “to have” originally and begun to mean “Office or government.” “人” means “human.” In a nut shell, the Kanji of Samurai means “a person who serves for government (or Imperial court).”

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Samurai history

The origin of Samurai is “Bukan” in the Japanese social status of Nara period (710 – 794). Bukan is a kind of police/military officer. At that time, social standing is fixed and run by clan which engaged in it. Japanese court ranks called “Ikai” had 30 ranks totally. Samurai belonged the 16th called “Shorokui 正六位.” Shorouki was a lower-class aristocrat and not allowed to be in the Imperial court. As indicate in the last chapter, Samurai was wait outside of the Imperial court and court nobles gave them order. The word “Samurai” became popular in the Edo period (1603– 1868). Before Edo period, they were called “Bushi 武士” or “Bukan 武官” for a long time. They are in charge of the security of the Palace where emperor lives in and of the capital. And they were soldiers good at archery. Sometimes Samurai reminds us of sword but they preferred archery.

In the late Heian period (around 11th century), the court nobles struggled to gain power in the capital and pay scarce attention to the rest of the archipelago. Due to this political strife, burglars plundered the delivery to the Imperial court in the west Japan. It was Gunjikizoku that overwhelmed them for the Imperial court.

Gunjikizoku is roughly translated “aristocrat with armed forces, ” or “armed aristocrat.” In the mid-Heian period, the Imperial court went into decline financially, and descendants of emperor left the Imperial lineage with surname (a person who belongs to it doesn’t have surname even today) because it cost a lot to keep them. Usually, they and their sons were able to stay in the Imperial court but their grand children left the capital to rural prefectures and some of them became a prefectural governors there. At that time, the Imperial court did not have standing army and ordered them to organize the armed forces in emergency. In this situation, they solved conflicts with forces. Thanks to their contribution to the imperial court, they gained their social status and were called Gunjikizoku.They were still under the control of the Imperial court.

In the 12th century, Hogen no ran occurred. It was a civil war to solve the dispute of the Imperial succession. In this conflict, Taira clan (Heishi 平氏), one of Gunjikizoku, aided emperor Goshirakawa and gained its social position and political power. Taira no Kiyomori (平清盛), the head of it, became a Daijo Daijin (太政大臣),  a kind of prime minster under constitutional monarchy. Some years later, he caused a coup and confined the emperor. Heishi enjoyed its heyday for a short period of time and was ruined by the Minamoto clan (Genji 源氏) at Dannnoura.

After Dannoura, Genji and Asihikaga clan established the Shogunates individually and Bushi/Saumurai ruled Japan under the legitimacy of emperor. In Japanese mythology, emperor is a descendant of Shinto Deity and anyone could not deny its legitimacy. Due to this, no Shogunates could not abolish the emperor. On the other hand, they had the right to rule the country because all Shogun were Gunjikizoku and descendants of emperors. (Except Tokugawa Iyeyasu. He “claimed” he was a descendant of empero Seiwa. )

In the 15th century, the succession of Ashikaga Shogunate caused Oninno ran, the largest civil war in Japanese history. It last for almost 11 years and make devastated Japan and the Shogunate lost its rule over the archipelago. Due to this, Sengoku Daimyo gained its power in prefectures and lead Japan to Sengoku period. So-called Samurai is warriors in this period.

In 17th century, Tokugawa Ieyasu founded Tokugawa Shogunate to bring an end to Sengoku period. Samurai remained as a class but it was quite different from war-time ones. In 19th century, “the last Samurai” carried out Meiji restoration and Samurai ceased to exist in Japan.

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How Samurai/Bushi fought in battle field?

Battle field

Fields and rivers are chosen as battle field. Fields are plain and it was suitable for battle array. Rivers were sometimes borders between Kuni (prefectures).

How did they fight war?

At first, each corps form battle array facing each other. The distance between them is about 300~500 ft. Typical battle array has 4 units: Shield unit, arrow unit, spear unit, and cavalry unit including commander.

Shield unit is in fore front. Many Samurai make a wall of shields in front line. Behind them, Samurai archers settle as arrow unit. Behind arrow units there are Samurai with spear prepared for attack.

When both corps are ready, in a roll of drums, Samurai bugler blows Horagai, a kind of trumpet made of see shell, to tell the begging of the battle. After that, one Samurai archer shots a Kaburaya arrow. The arrow head of Kaburaya has holes and it makes a sound. It is a signal and arrow unit shoots arrows one after another without cease.

With arrow attack, the wall of shields of the enemy starts to fall to pieces. Then, Samurai in spear unit cross spears and head to the enemy’s position. If they succeed to brake down the wall of shields, cavalry rush to the enemy’s position. The battle will be fought until one of them decides to withdraw or have commander’s head.

How did cavalry fought each other?

Cavalry always reminds us of Samurai fight. In Sengoku period, cavalry lost its importance because fight with spear was more effective.

Cavalry is called “Kibamusha (騎馬武者)” in Japanese. Your idea about it is a Samurai on horse back and runs around battle field at a full speed to defeat enemies with sword.

On the contrary, real Kibamusha is far different from your idea. Now let us make a small inspection. Usually, he had solders who helped him. The following are important ones.

  1. Batei (馬丁): a soldier who controlls a horse.
  2. Yarimoti (槍持ち): a soldier who bring spear Kibamusha uses.
  3. Jijyusya (侍従者): a solder who fight with Kibamusha.

In battle field, Batei controlled a horse Kibamusha was on because horses were not neutered and it was tough business to control them fighting with enemies. Horse didn’t run at a full speed. It couldn’t run in that way. If so, it would get tired and stop running. Kibamusha uses arrows to defeat enemy because it was the safest way to do that. When he uses sword, he has to get close to the enemy. If the enemy pull him out of horse to the ground, he would be in great danger because Yarimochi or Jijyusya, or others try to stab him. In battle field, Kibamusha usually took a shot at a horse which enemy Kibamusha was on for the purpose of having him fallen on the ground. It is far effective than to shoot the enemy. If he was on the ground, Kibamusha shoot arrow on him or his helpers like Yarimochi stab him and took off his head.

On the contrary, Kibamusha shot an enemy on horse. When he did it, he ran after the enemy. And when the enemy turned around, he shot an arrow in his eye. Samurai armor has an iron mask but it couldn’t protect eyes.

笠懸神事2018/Samurai Archery@上賀茂神社

The video is of Kasagake. In Kasagake, archer aims a targets in a high and low place. To aim a target at high place is a training for shooting Kibamusha on horse and a low place is a training for shooting Kibamusha on the ground.

After battle

When Samurai killed enemy, he cut off enemy’s head because it proved what he did. After battle, winners gathered at Buddhist temple  The heads were washed and daughters of Samurai combed their hair and put them make up. Each head had a tag indicating a name of the Samurai who cut it off.

A Samurai showed heads to a commander. Next to him, there was an armed Samurai because it was believed that the head would attack them.

The higher was the military rank the head once belonged to, the higher was the reward of Samurai who cut it off. After the inspection of heads, funeral service was held and they were buried. High-ranked Samurai’s head were sent to his home-Kuni. Samurai showed respect to enemies because they fought bravely.

Samurai arms

Spear

時代祭2016 室町幕府執政列

There were many kinds of spears. The spear unit uses the longest one because it enables to attack enemy in distance. It was especially useful to fight against cavalry.

Spear unit usually organized by Ashigaru. Ashigaru are sometimes half-peasant soldiers. In the begging of Sengoku period, most of soldiers are peasants. Spear was suitable because it was so easy to fight with spear.

Arrow

流鏑馬

Before Sengoku period, Arrow was for cavalry. Samurai/Bushi was good at horse back archery. Yabusame and Kasagake are their training we still can see in many festivals.The effective range of arrow was about 1200 ft.

Rifle

Rifle was introduced to Japan in 1543 and many Daimyo took advantage of it. It did not have rifling and quite different form rifle we know. Its effective range was about 300 ft. It was shorter than that of arrow but it could shoot through armors in short distance (about 250 ft.).

Samurai Sword

General information

Samurai always reminds us of Samurai sword but it was not so effective as we expected. Acturally, stones on the field was more useful because soldiers had to get close to enemy. On the other hand, they could injure them in distance with spear or stone.

Kinds of Swords

Samurai sword is called “Katana (刀)” in Japanese. Katana means a sword which has one-sided edge. Katana has 2 kinds. One is Chokuto (直刀) and the other is Wanto (彎刀). Chokuto is straight and suitable for stabbing. On the other hand, Wanto is curved and suitable for cutting. Samurai sword is Wanto. Wanto has generally 5 kinds. The pupular ones in battle field is Tachi (太刀) and Uchigatana (打刀). These are told by their curves. Tachi has narrower curve.

Tachi

太刀

Tachi is a sword for cavalry. Samurai cut enemies down taking advantage of speed his steed made. They usually swang Tachi down to attack enemy. Take a look at the sword in the photo. This is the way to have Tachi.  When Samurai on horse uses Tachi, he pull Tachi out of sheath, raise it, and swing down finally. It is convenient for him to have Tachi in that way.

Uchigatana

打刀

Uchigatana is a sword for hand-to-hand combat. It is less curved than Tachi. The shape enables Samurai to draw it instantly. Take a look at the sword in the photo. The Samurai has Uchigatana in a different way of Tachi. He has it upside down because he doesn’t need to raise it. All he have to do is to pull it out of sheath and extend his arm and he cut enemy automatically.

Samurai armor

samurai armor

In Japan, soldiers wore armor at least the 6th century. It looks like the armor in the photo. It is an armor of Nara period (710-794).

大鎧

In Heian period (794-1192), Japanese armor was well-developed: Ohyoroi (大鎧) was invented. It is suitable for horse back archery. It is arrow-proof armor and has many movable parts and each of them are put together with beautiful silk strings. It is heavy but wearer can’t feel its weight because it is on saddle. Ohyoroi is ornamented with beautiful silk strings because it was wore Gunjikizoku once belonged to the Imperial lineage. Their sense of beauty appeared even on armors.

胴懸

On the other hand, low-class samurai wore simple ones like Dokake (胴懸) or Haramaki (腹巻). They were simple but effective ones.

太刀

In Sengoku period, a new armor was invented based on them: Tosegusoku (当世具足). “Tose” means “modern” and “Gusoku” means “armor.” Tosegusoku is a spear and sword-proof (bullet-proof later) armor.  It was far lighter than Ohyoroi and suitable for hand-to-hand combat with spear and sword.

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Real Bushido in the days of war, or Sengoku period: Hagakure

Bushido is a collection of codes which Samurai follow: Honor, sincerity, loyality, and so on. You can find them in Nitobe Inazo’s work, Bushido, The Soul of Japan.

It was written in Edo period: All Samurai wars were fought and the most peaceful time in feudal Japan. The work is well-written and foundation of so-called Samurai code we know but it was written under the influence of Confucianism and so idealized that it doesn’t tell Samurai’s war-time way of life. The Nitobe’s work is an introduction of Japan to the West.

We have lots of works about Samurai code. Among them, Hagakure shows us the most important Samurai value.

Hagakure (葉隠), or Hagakure Kikigaki (葉隠聞書) is a assorted “Samurai creed” of Yamamoto Tsunetomo(山本常朝) compiled by Tashiro Tsuramoto(田代陣基). They both are Samurai of Sagahan (a part of Saga and Nagasaki prefecture today). It is famous for a following sentence in Japan: Bushido, I found that it means to die (武士道と云うは、死ぬことと見つけたり). And the last sentence of the chapter the sentence is in, it says: Live in death (常住死身).

The sentence doesn’t recommend death to Samurai. Actually, Hagakure is a philosophy to live. Hagakure tells us to behave ourselves with conscious of  death every moment. It doesn’t mean MEMENTOMORI. On the other hand, it means a death on our initiative and act. It says that when we do something, just do it as if we were dead. With this idea, we cannot fail our decision because we don’t have second thoughts or hesitation. The state of mind without second thoughts or hesitation is called Mushin (無心) in Japanese. With this state of mind, we are free from any obstacles to prevent us from right decision and we can accomplish what we want to: It gives us loyalty and saves us from shame. and It is hard to understand it but the idea is familiar to Japanese people even today.

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Harakiri

Harakiri is an English word. We say Seppuku (切腹) instead. The oldest Seppku was carried out in 988. An aristcrat named Fujiwarano Yasusuke was arrested and he cut his abdomen and took his intestine out. He was dead because of the wound. Seppku had many kind: Oibara (When a master dies, Samurai performed Seppuku to show his loyalty.), Tsumebara (Seppuku for his responsibility.), and other ones.

Seppuku became popular self-inflict death of Samurai in the 14th century. In the 16th century, Shimizu Muneharu lost a battle with Toyotomi Hideyoshi (He was a commander of Oda Nobunaga’s army.). Muneharu’s castle was isolated in a huge pool of water Hideyoshi made. Muneharu denied surrender and performed Seppuku for the purpose of saving his family and his warriors. This incident make Seppuku an honorable death.

Warriors made Seppuku is respected even today. I’ll show you a good example. In 1600, Tokugawa army led by a commander Torii Mototada lost a battle in Fushimi castle. He and his Samurai killed them selves. It their bodies were left there for a month in the heat of summer ant the floor they were on had blood stain. After the incident, some of the floor boards became the ceilings of temple in Kyoto like Genkoan or Hosenin. These temples have them for the purpose of having the souls of the Samurai rest in peace. At Hosenin temple, we can have tea under the ceiling. It may sound weird thing to do but it is for the deceased Samurai. To visit the temple and have tea makes their souls relieved.

Seppuku was carried out in a manner. A Samurai who does Seppuku is called “Seppukunin”. There are two persons around him. “Kaisyakunin” and “Mitodokeyaku”. Seppukunin stab his abdomen with a short sword. He cut it horizontally and vertically in a way called “Jumonji Bara.” It causes him huge pain. The blood stain of the ceiling of Hosenin temple tells us Seppukunin scratched the floor until his last minute. After that, Kaisyakunin cut off a head of Seppukunin. Mitodokeyaku tells his death to his feudal lord.

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Appendix

The following will be great help to understand what Samurai is.

高橋昌明 (2018) 『武士の日本史』岩波書店

小和田哲男 (2018) 『戦国 戦の作法』 G.B.

田代基陣・山本常朝 『葉隠 上』岩波書店

Daisetz T. Suzuki, Zen and Japanese Culture, Princeton University Press; Reprint edition (October 3, 2010)

Inazo Nitobe, Bushido, the Soul of Japan, IBC publishing, 2003

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