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A Brief History of the Samurai

A Brief History of the Samurai

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Published by thunderlee
A Brief History of the Samurai
A Brief History of the Samurai

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Published by: thunderlee on Jan 31, 2013
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 INTRODUCTIONThe samurai were the warrior caste of medieval Japan, a class of powerful mounted soldiers whorose to power as retainers of feudal lords and the military arm of the imperial court, beforeestablishing a new national order. Like the Vikings of Scandinavia they were initially men withnothing to lose, who won land at the point of a sword. Like the knights of Crusader Europe, theywent on to export their military prowess in a handful of foreign expeditions. But contrary to acommon modern misco
nception, the samurai were not a solely ‘
’ creation. Throughout
 Japanese history, the great unspoken influences are China and its Korean vassal kingdom, presentedvariously as a threat to be fought off, a source of culture and precedent, a source of refugee
aristocrats and wealth, or trade. It was the Chinese’ Emperor, or rather China’s Mongol conqueror,
Khubilai Khan, who inadvertently united the samurai in their finest hour the spirited defence of Japan in the thirteenth century. It was the prospect of conquering China hat led the samurai in theirill-fated invasion of Korea in the late sixteenth century. But a millennium earlier, the First samuraiwere also created in reaction to a military system borrowed from China, which foundered whenexported to Japanese terrain. The image owes much of its origin to frontier wars in what is nowconsidered to be Japanese territory, but at the time was distinctly foreign. However, despite periodiccontacts abroad to define and redefine their self image, the bulk of the battles of the samurai over a700 year period were fought among themselves. Held up to modern readers as a quintessentialelement of the soul of Japan, their system was brought crashing down by the onset of modernityitself.The word samurai literally means henchman or retainer. The earliest use of the word comesattached to low ranking civil servants in old-time Japan a warrior class that began as a brawlingrabble in the early Middle Ages, before the knightly class began to win favour, its own feudaldomains and with them, a yearning for high culture. As the life of a successful warrior garneredspoils and wealth, the trappings of these military men became more ostentatious. So, too, did theirpersonal battle with the nature of loyalty itself. Throughout the history of the samurai, the questionof loyalty is a constant, incessant refrain. Loyalty to whom this or that pretender, this or thatgeneral? Loyalty to what the imperial institution, its martial representative, the status quo, or eventhe idea of a new order, if only the current order could be overturned?An ethos of suicidal constancy and fearlessness created a quasi-religious worship of battleitself, with the samurai as vainglorious actors in deadly displays of valour. Early samurai battles, atleast in so far as accounts of them have survived, have a ritual, theatrical quality, as champions rideout to recite their names and lineage; it was important for
one’s kills to be counted and one’s
performance to be noted. Samurai would often wear personal flags to make it clear who it was thatwas winning heads on a battlefield, and many had distinctive armour, richly decorated, withdeliberately eye-catching helmet decorations, including
devil’s horns, a crescent moon or a demon’s
head. In the later period, some old warriors lamented the anonymity of the crowded modernbattlefield, and the unsightly, dishonourable egalitarianism afforded to unskilled musketeers whocould point and shoot after mere days of training, instead of a lifetime studying archery and thesword.A samurai was supposedly a perfect soldier, keeping to a draconian martial code that wasset down much later as
the ‘way of the warrior’. Honour, bravery and
prowess in battlewere valued above life itself. One of the most famous samurai was Kusunoki Masashige
a statue
of him on a horse has a prominent position outside today’s
Imperial Palace in T
. Ordered into abattle he knew he could not win, he still led the charge, and died proclaiming that he wished he hadseven lives to give for his country. He later became an unofficial emblem of the
pilots inthe Second World War.Most notoriously, samurai were expected to choose death over dishonour. In order to provethat they were not afraid, samurai suicides followed the practice of 
- cutting open the belly,
more vulgarly known as
hara kiri 
. This was regarded as the most excruciating and unpleasant deathknown to man, and was a kind of voluntary torture undergone by samurai determined to prove theirpurity of purpose.Certain samurai eventually came to dominate the emperors they were supposed to serve.Many would use an old military rank to justify this, claiming that the emperor had made them
a supreme general with orders to suppress unrest, particularly to protect Japan frombarbarian incursions. From the Middle Ages until the late nineteenth century, Japan was effectivelyunder the control of the samurai class, and imperial decrees merely ratified the decisions taken bythe most dominant warlord. Samurai continued to fight among themselves, often claiming to beloyal to an emperor who had received the wrong advice from his closest retainers. Such an attitudeturned the emperors into pawns of whichever warlord had the best access to them.A series of civil wars came to an end in the sixteenth century, with several prominentsamurai generals seizing
control of the country in the Emperor’s name. The final and
most enduringvictors were the Tokugawa family, who would supply the sh
gun for the ensuing 250 years.The sheer size and scope of the samurai world makes it impossible to cover in its entirety.Every town has its local hero; every prefecture has its school trips to battlefields that the educationboard deem to be important. Samurai history has its undeniable high points, those leaders amongthe agglutinative, multi-word designations who had somehow gained a single, stark name in popularaccounts: Yoshitsune, Nobunaga, Hideyoshi, and Ieyasu. For the historian, however, there is theinevitable need to be concise, to cast aside moments, periods or figures in the interests of clarity.There are books about the samurai that confine all mention of the seven-year Korea campaign to afootnote, books that start long after the Thirty-Eight Years War, or finish centuries before the MeijiRestoration. Even the precise end of the samurai era is debatable. Its last battle was arguably foughtin 1638, where a pocket of veterans, many of them Christian, led an ill-fated revolt in the southagainst the third Tokugawa Sh
gun. The rebellion was ruthlessly crushed, the men and their familiesmassacred, sending a clear message to the rest of Japan. In the
shōgun’s own
ds: ‘There will beno more wars’
Japan was decreed closed to outsiders, shutting out the pervasive foreign influencesof Christianity and foreigners.For the next 200 years, Japan was a prosperous but fearful police state the samurai were 10per cent of the entire population, and were kept at that level by strict sumptuary rules. The lowerclasses struggled to support a warrior elite with no more wars left to fight, and the samuraithemselves declined into bureaucracy, brigandage and sometimes poverty. Some died in vendettasover the increasingly intricate laws of propriety and conduct. Others, their livelihood lost with thedeath or dishonour of their lord, became master less, wandering toughs (
) or sneaked abroadto fight in foreign wars. Some even took a step that would have been unthinkable to their ancestors,renouncing their samurai status to become merchants or farmers.Most of our stories of the samurai come from this period. Even tales of older deeds andbattles were often set down in their modern forms during the era of decline, by authors attemptingto recreate or remember the glory days, or by playwrights forced to tell old stories as a mask forbanned reportage of current events. Our knowledge of the samurai era is often refracted by thesedemands, told with anachronistic trappings, or viewed through rose-coloured spectacles, frombooks, woodblock prints and plays.Nor is this issue confined to the modern age. The great era of the
or militarychronicles was the fifteenth century, 100 years removed from the events that they described. Thegreat era for tales of the bloody unification of the country was the eighteenth century, once again, atleast a century after the fact. We should regard such sources with the suspicion we might apply to aViking saga, and ask ourselves who was writing, who was reading, what was lost and what wasadded before such tales were set down for posterity.Anachronism is an intriguing part of the samurai experience. For more than 200 years, theJapanese entered a consensual time warp, returning to a world of castle towns, swordsmen andarchers, giving up the gun and maintaining artillery at seventeen-century levels of technology. While
the Industrial Revolution got underway elsewhere, Japan remained curiously preoccupied with theconcerns of the warrior elite that had united it. After centuries of conflict, it might be said that thehard won victory of the samurai was so bloody, so brutal and so entire, that they were left dazedand unprepared for peace itself.There are many problems that beset the writer (and reader) of a general samurai history.Sometimes it seems as if every tiny hamlet on a mountainside has a connection to a great warrior orfamous incident. For the historian who must be brief, there are often heartbreaking decisions aboutthe anecdotes, testimonies and descriptions that must be left out. There is also a difficult balance tostrike between precision and complexity. Academics are strongly discouraged from drawing directparallels with Western institutions or time periods
while terms such as knight, baron or countmight appear instructive and evocative, for many they are too much so, and force European idealson an alien system. Take such admonitions too far, and discussion of Japanese history collapses intounreadable prose, thick with supposedly untranslatable concepts
sankin kō
 junshi, giri 
. These concepts are necessary for appreciating the more impenetrable texts, but I haveused them sparingly in this book. Hence, many will only show up Once in the index, on the pageWhere they are first mentioned, along with an English translation that I use thereafter: despite whatsome writers may suggest, very few of them really are untranslatable after all. I hope that this, atleast, will help keep the narrative clear enough for the general reader, but still useful enough for thespecialist, or the researcher who wishes to dig deeper in other sources.A far greater problem in translating Japanese history for the general reader lies in themultiple readings afforded by the Japanese writing system. Japanese is written using a combinationof Chinese characters and local phonetic scripts. Each character has a local, Japanese pronunciationand a classier Chinese reading, sometimes several. The meaning of a word is often more obvious as aglance than precisely how it should be pronounced - an issue that has contributed to the modernJapanese insistence on business cards. It is immediately clear to a Japanese reader that the bookentitled
can also be read as
The Chronicle of Yoshitsune
, that a book called
Shinchō Kō
about Oda Nobunaga, or that a conflict called
refers to a war between the housesof Minamoto and Taira.
For someone unfamiliar with the characters and their
multiple readings, thisoften makes it appear as if Japanese
has two names for everything. I have done what I can to
shovelsuch issues into the endnotes, where they will not
interfere with the main narrative. In cases wherea Japanese title is not uncommon in English sources, such as
Hagakure, Hakkenden
, Igive the term and
its translation.
Many writers are tempted to discuss Japanese history as if it were hermetically sealed fromthe rest of the world. Although this is often how the Japanese liked to see themselves, Japan is anintegral part of north
east Asia. Its dealings with the mainland in trade, piracy, cultural exchangeand war were crucial influences in the development of a martial tradition that the Japanesethemselves like to think of as unique. Hence, I make no apologies for my recurring focus on foreigncontacts in this book - my own interests often lie on the border regions, where the Matsumae family
carried civilization to the ‘barbarians’ of 
Ezo, where the
clan kept a constant vigil for hostile shipsoff Tsushima, and where the sailors of Satsuma pursued a secret suzerainty over the Ry
ū Islands.
We should remember that the ultimate authority of the samurai era, the Sh
ōgun himself, was the‘Great General Who Suppresses the Barbarians’, a military leader whose job was to
defend Japaneseculture from the predations and influences of unwelcome outsiders. By appreciating the impact of such foreign contacts, we can comprehend Japan
’s draconian reactions to them.
Paramount amongthese, of course, is the 200-year lockdown during the Tokugawa Sh
gunate, when the last of thegreat pre-modern foreign imports, Christianity, was ruthlessly suppressed.It is often difficult in Japanese history to tell who is precisely in charge. For the millenniumcovered in this book, it was universally agreed that the ultimate authority rested with the emperors.And yet, even before the samurai period began in earnest, many emperors were puppets of theirregents, such as the powerful members of the Soga and Fujiwara families. From 1192 to 1333, theemperors were obliged to delegate their authority to the Kamakura sh
ōgunate, nine generations of 

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