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Myth and reality
Most samurai were bound by a strict code of honor, the Bushido (???, bushido?) and were expected to set an example for those below them. A notable part of the Bushido code is seppuku (??, seppuku?) which allowed a disgraced samurai to regain their honor by passing into death, where samurai are still beholden to the rules of the Bushido code. However, the bushido code was written in peace-time and it may not truly reflect the samurai's abilities as a warrior. Today, many people uphold the belief that the samurai fought nobly; for instance, many would consider it unlikely that a samurai would strike an opponent from behind, or fight in a manner normally attributed to the Ninja. However, from studies of Kobudo and Samurai Budo it is widely considered that the samurai were as practical on the battlefield as any European knight.
In practice, there were the disloyal and treacherous (e.g., Akechi Mitsuhide), cowardly, brave, or overly loyal (e.g., Kusunoki Masashige) samurai. Samurai were usually loyal to their immediate superiors, who in turn allied themselves with higher lords. These alliances with higher lords often shifted; for example, the feudal lords allied under Toyotomi Hideyoshi (????) enjoyed the loyalty of their men, but the feudal lords themselves might shift their backing to Tokugawa. This did not mean that the lower-ranked samurai were disloyal though as their allegiance was to their immediate superior.
Origin of Samurai
Iron helmet and armour with gilt bronze decoration, Kofun era, 5th century. Tokyo National Museum.Before the Heian period the army in Japan was modeled after the Chinese army and was under the direct command of the emperor. With the exception of slaves, every able-bodied man had to enlist in the army. These men had to supply themselves, and many gave up returning and settled down on their way home. This was treated as a part of taxation and it could be substituted with other forms of tax such as bolts of cloth. These men were called Sakimori (??, lit. "defenders"), but they are not related to samurai.
In the early Heian period, the late 8th and early 9th centuries, Emperor Kammu (????) sought to consolidate and expand his rule in northern Honshu. but the armies he sent to conquer the rebellious Emishi lacked motivation and discipline and were unable to prevail. Emperor Kammu introduced the title of Seiitaishogun (?????) or shogun and began to rely on the powerful regional clans to conquer the Emishi. Skilled in mounted combat and archery (kyudo, ??), these clan warriors became the emperor's preferred tool for putting down rebellions. Even though they may have been educated, the Imperial court officials considered 7th to 9th century warriors to be crude and barbaric.
During the Heian period, the emperor's army was disbanded and the emperor's power gradually declined. While the emperor was still the ruler, powerful clans around Kyoto (??) assumed positions as ministers and their relatives bought positions as magistrates to collect taxes. To repay their debts and amass wealth they often imposed heavy taxes and many farmers were forced to leave their lands. Regional clans grew powerful by offering lower taxes to their subjects as well as freedom from conscription. These clans armed themselves to repel other clans and magistrates from collecting taxes and they eventually formed themselves into armed parties and become samurai.
The samurai came from guards of the imperial palace and from private guards that the clans employed and acted as a police force in and around Kyoto. These forerunners of what we now know as samurai had ruler-sponsored equipment and were required to hone their martial skills. They were saburai, servants, yet their advantage of being the sole armed party increasingly became apparent. By promising protection and gaining political clout through political marriages they amassed power, eventually surpassing the ruling aristocrats.
Some clans were originally farmers that had been driven to arms to protect themselves from the imperially appointed magistrates sent to govern their lands and collect taxes. These clans formed alliances to protect themselves against more powerful clans and by the mid-Heian period, they had adopted Japanese-style armor and weapons and laid the foundation of bushido, their famous ethical code.
After the 11th century, Samurai were expected to be cultured and literate and they lived up to the ancient saying "Bun Bu Ryo Do" (lit. literary arts, military arts, both ways) or "The pen and the sword in accord". An early term for warrior "Uruwashii" was written with a kanji that combined the kanji for literary study ("bun" ?) and military arts ("bu" ?) and is mentioned in the Heike Monogatari (late 12th century). The Heike Monogatari makes references to the educated poet-swordsman ideal in its mention of Taira no Tadanori's death:
"Friends and foes alike wet their sleeves with tears and said, "What a pity! Tadanori was a great general, pre-eminent in the arts of both sword and poetry."
According to William Scott Wilson in his book Ideals of the Samurai: "The warriors in the Heike Monogatari served as models for the educated warriors of later generations, and the ideals depicted by them were not assumed to be beyond reach. Rather, these ideals were vigorously pursued in the upper echelons of warrior society and recommended as the proper form of the Japanese man of arms. With the Heike Monogatari, the image of the Japanese warrior in literature came to its full maturity." Wilson then translates the writings of several warriors who mention the Heike Monogatari as an example for their men to follow.
Kamakura Bakufu and the Rise of Samurai
Originally these warriors were merely mercenaries in the employ of the emperor and noble clans (kuge, ??), but slowly they gathered enough power to usurp the aristocracy and establish the first samurai-dominated government.
As regional clans gathered manpower and resources and struck alliances with each other, they formed a hierarchy centered around a toryo, or chief. This chief was typically a distant relative of the emperor and a lesser member of one of three noble families (the Fujiwara, Minamoto, or the Taira). Though originally sent to provincial areas for a fixed four year term as a magistrate, the toryo declined to return to the capital when their terms ended and their sons inherited their positions and continued to lead the clans in putting down rebellions throughout Japan during the middle and later Heian period.
Samurai fighting at the naval battle of Dan-no-Ura in 1185.Because of their rising military and economic power, the clans ultimately became a new force in the politics of the court. Their involvement in the Hogen Rebellion in the late Heian period consolidated their power and finally pitted the rival Minamoto and the Taira clans against each other in the Heiji Rebellion of 1160. Emerging victorious, Taira no Kiyomori became an imperial advisor, the first warrior to attain such a position, and eventually seized control of the central government to establish the first samurai-dominated government and relegate the emperor to a mere figurehead. However, the Taira clan was still very aristocratic compared with the later Minamoto and instead of expanding or strengthening its military might, the Taira clan had its women marry emperors and attempted to exercise control through the emperor.
The Taira and the Minamoto once again clashed in 1180 beginning the Gempei War which ended in 1185. The victorious Minamoto no Yoritomo established the superiority of the samurai over the aristocracy. In 1190 he visited Kyoto and in 1192 became Seii Taishogun, establishing the Kamakura Shogunate or Kamakura Bakufu. Instead of basing its rule in Kyoto, he set up the Shogunate in Kamakura, near his base of power. "Bakufu" means tent government, taken from the encampments the soldiers would live in, in accordance with the Bakufu's status as a military government.
Over time, powerful samurai clans became warrior nobility (buke) who were only nominally under the court aristocracy. When the samurai began to adopt aristocratic customs like calligraphy, poetry and music, some court aristocrats also began to adopt samurai skills. In spite of various machinations and brief periods of rule by various emperors, real power was now in the hands of the shogun and samurai.
Ashikaga Shogunate and the Feudal Period
Various samurai clans struggled for power over Kamakura and Ashikaga Shogunates.
Zen Buddhism spread among samurai in the 13th century and it helped to shape their standards of conduct, particularly overcoming fear of death and killing, but among the general populace Pure Land Buddhism was favored.
The Samurai Suenaga facing Mongols, during the Mongol invasions of Japan. Moko Shurai Ekotoba (??????), circa 1293.In the 13th century, the Yuan, a Chinese state of the Mongol Empire, invaded Japan twice and the samurai, who were not used to fighting in groups, barely survived the first brief battle. However, they were prepared for the second invasion, building a defensive stone wall on the Mongols' landing shore and adopting night attack tactics. Overall, the Samurai way of warfare was incapable of inflicting significant damage upon the Mongol army, which favored tactics of large encirclement, blitzkrieg, and employed advanced weaponry (the Samurai were shocked by the Chinese grenades). In the end, it was the second typhoon that destroyed the Mongol armada, and prevented the Yuan Dynasty from annexation of Japan. The Japanese called the typhoon "the divine wind" or "kamikaze".
Samurai and defensive wall at Hakata. Moko Shurai Ekotoba, (??????) c.1293.Two major military elements were learnt from the Mongol invasions: (1) the importance of infantry and (2) the weakness of Japanese longbows and conventional Samurai cavalry against invaders. As the result, the samurai gradually replaced the way of the bow with the way of "blades". At the beginning of the 14th century, swords and spears became the main form of weapon among Japanese samurai warlords.
In the 14th century a blacksmith called Masamune developed a two-layer structure of soft and hard for use in weapons. This structure gave the much improved cutting power and endurance and the production technique has led to Japanese swords being recognized as one of the most potent hand weapons of pre-industrial East Asia. Swords made using the technique were one of the country's top export items, a few even making their way as far as India.
Issues of inheritance caused family infighting as primogeniture became common, in contrast to the division of succession designated by law before the 14th century. To avoid infighting, invasion of neighboring samurai's territories was common and bickering among samurai was a constant problem for the Kamakura and Ashikaga Shogunates.
The Sengoku jidai ("warring-states period") was marked by the loosening of samurai culture with people born into other social strata sometimes making names for themselves as warriors and thus becoming de facto samurai. In this turbulent period, bushido ethics became important factors in controlling and maintaining public order.
Japanese war tactics and technologies improved rapidly in the 15th and 16th century. Use of large numbers of infantry called ashigaru ("light-foot", due to their light armour), formed of humble warriors or ordinary people with Nagayari (??) or long lance, was introduced and combined with cavalry in maneuvers. The number of people mobilized in warfare ranged from thousands to hundreds of thousands.
Nanban (Western)-style samurai cuirass, 16th century.The arquebus, a matchlock gun, was introduced by Lusitanians/Portuguese via a Chinese pirate ship in 1543 and the Japanese succeeded in naturalizing it within a decade. Groups of mercenaries with harquebus and mass produced rifles played a critical role.
By the end of feudal period, several hundred thousand rifles existed in Japan and massive armies numbering over 100,000 clashed in battles. The largest and most powerful army in Europe, the Spanish, had only several thousand rifles and could only assemble 30,000 troops. Ninja also played critical roles in intelligence activity. In 1592, and again in 1598, Japan invaded Korea with an army of 160,000 samurai in the Seven-Year War, taking great advantage of its mastery of guns.
The social mobility of human resources was flexible, as the ancient regime collapsed and emerging samurai needed to maintain large military and administrative organizations in their areas of influence. Most of the samurai families that survived to the 19th century originated in this era declaring themselves to be the blood of one of the four ancient noble clans, Minamoto, Taira, Fujiwara and Tachibana. In most cases, however, it is hard to prove who their ancestors were.
See also: Nanban trade period
Oda, Toyotomi and Tokugawa
Oda Nobunaga was the well-known lord of the Nagoya area (once called Owari Province) and an exceptional example of samurai of the Sengoku Period. He came within a few years of, and laid down the path for his successors to achieve, the reunification of Japan under a new Bakufu (Shogunate).
Oda Nobunaga made innovations in the fields of organizations and war tactics, heavily used harquebus, developed commerce and industry and treasured innovations. Consecutive victories enabled him to realize the termination of the Ashikaga Bakufu and the disarmament of the military powers of the Buddhist monks, which had inflamed futile struggles among the populace for centuries. Attacking from a "sanctuary" of Buddhist temples, they were constant headaches to any warlords and even the emperor who tried to control their actions. He died in 1582 when one of his Generals, Akechi Mitsuhide, turned upon him with his army.
The Samurai Hasekura Tsunenaga in Rome in 1615, Coll. Borghese, Rome.Importantly, Toyotomi Hideyoshi (see below) and Tokugawa Ieyasu, who founded the Tokugawa Shogunate, were loyal followers of Nobunaga. Hideyoshi was brought up from a nameless peasant to be one of Nobunaga's top generals and Ieyasu had shared his childhood with Nobunaga. Hideyoshi defeated Mitsuhide within a month and was regarded as the rightful successor of Nobunaga by avenging the treachery of Mitsuhide.
These two were gifted with Nobunaga's previous achievements on which build a unified Japan and there was a saying: "The reunification is a rice cake; Oda made it. Hashiba shaped it. At last, only Ieyasu tastes it." (Hashiba is the family name that Toyotomi Hideyoshi used while he was a follower of Nobunaga.)
Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who became a grand minister in 1586, himself the son of a poor peasant family, created a law that the samurai caste became codified as permanent and heritable, and that non-samurai were forbidden to carry weapons, thereby ending the social mobility of Japan up until that point and the dissolution of the Edo Shogunate by the Meiji revolutionaries.
It is important to note that the distinction between samurai and non-samurai was so obscure that during the 16th century, most male adults in any social class (even small farmers) belonged to at least one military organization of their own and served in wars before and during Hideyoshi's rule. It can be said that an "all against all" situation continued for a century.
The authorized samurai families after the 17th century were those that chose to follow Nobunaga, Hideyoshi and Ieyasu. Large battles occurred during the change between regimes, and a number of defeated samurai were destroyed, went ronin or were absorbed into the general populace.
Samurai walking followed by a servant, by Hanabusa Itcho (1652 - 1724)During the Tokugawa era, samurai increasingly became courtiers, bureaucrats, and administrators rather than warriors. With no warfare since the early 17th century, samurai gradually lost their military function during the Tokugawa era (also called the Edo period).
By the end of the Tokugawa era, samurai were aristocratic bureaucrats for the daimyo, with their daisho, the paired long and short swords of the samurai (cf. 'katana' and wakizashi) becoming more of a symbolic emblem of power rather than a weapon used in daily life. They still had the legal right to cut down any commoner who did not show proper respect, but to what extent this right was used is unknown. When the central government forced daimyos to cut the size of their armies, unemployed ronin became a social problem.
Theoretical obligations between a samurai and his lord (usually a daimyo) increased from the Genpei era to the Edo era. They were strongly emphasized by the teachings of Confucius and Mencius (ca 550 B.C.)which were required reading for the educated samurai class. During the Edo period, after the general end of hostilities, the code of Bushido was formalized. It is important to note that bushido was an ideal, but that it remained uniform from the 13th century to the 19th century - the ideals of Bushido transcended social class, time and geographic location of the warrior class.
Bushido was formalized by many samurai in this time of peace in much the same fashion as chivalry was formalized after knights as a warrior class became obsolete in Europe. The conduct of samurai became a favorable model of a citizen in Edo, with formalities being emphasised. With time on their hands, samurai spent more time in pursuit of other interests such as becoming scholars.
Bushido still survives in present-day Japanese society, as do many other aspects of the samurai's way of life.
Samurai decline during the Meiji Restoration
By this time, the Way of Death and Desparateness had been eclipsed by a rude awakening in 1853, when Commodore Matthew Perry's massive steamships from the US Navy first imposed broader commerce, American Style, on the once-dominant national policy. Prior to that only a few harbor towns, under strict control from the Shogunate, were able to participate in Western trade, and even then, it was based largely on the idea of playing the Franciscans and Dominicans off against one another (in exchange for the crucial arquebus technology, which in turn was a major contributor to the downfall of the classical samurai).
Samurai of the Satsuma clan, during the Boshin War period, circa 1867. Photograph by Felice BeatoThe last showing of the original samurai was in 1867 when samurai from Choshu and Satsuma provinces defeated the shogunate forces in favor of the rule of the emperor. The two provinces were the lands of the daimyo that submitted to Ieyasu after the Battle of Sekigahara (1600).
Other sources claim that the last samurai were in 1877, during the Satsuma Rebellion in the Battle of Shiroyama.
The main players of the revolt came from lower class samurai in every province, with a common political goal:- to maintain the independence of Japan against Western powers. But the two daimyo clashed first and these bloody conflicts lasted for years. Ultimately they realized that a large civil war must be avoided because that was just what the foreign powers waited for. So the last shogun Tokugawa Yoshinobu returned rulership to the emperor to avoid the civil war. Some resisted, believing this was a coup d'état by Choshu and Satsuma and that the government was in their hands. Groups of Tohoku samurai organized an armed resistance but they were eventually defeated.
Emperor Meiji abolished the samurai's right to be the only armed force in favor of a more modern, western-style, conscripted army. Samurai became Shizoku (??) who retained some of their salaries, but the right to wear a katana in public was eventually abolished along with the right to cut down commoners who paid them disrespect. The samurai finally came to an end after hundreds of years of enjoyment of their status, their powers, and their ability to shape the government of Japan. However, the rule of the state by the military class was not yet over.
Post Meiji Restoration
In defining how a modern Japan should be, members of the Meiji government decided to follow the footsteps of United Kingdom and Germany, basing the country on the concept of "noblesse oblige" and samurai would not be a political force much like that of Prussia.
With the Meiji reforms in the late 19th century, the samurai class was abolished, and a western-style national army was established. The Imperial Japanese Armies were conscripted, but many samurai volunteered to be soldiers and many advanced to be trained as officers. Much of the Imperial Army officer class was of samurai origin and they were highly motivated, disciplined and well trained. As such the Imperial Army defeated a rebellion of samurai in the Satsuma Rebellion.
The Japanese Empire fought and won the Sino-Japanese War (1894) and the Russo-Japanese War (1904) and it could be reasoned that these volunteers and officers were behind these victories. Most soldiers of both Chinese and Russian armies could neither read nor write and after their officers were killed, the armies quickly disintegrated.
Many early exchange students were samurai, not directly because they were samurai, but because many samurai were literate and well-educated scholars. Some of these exchange students started private schools for higher educations, while many samurai took pens instead of guns and became reporters and writers, setting up newspaper companies. Other samurai entered governmental services as they were literate and well educated.
As de facto aristocrats for centuries, samurai developed their own cultures that influenced Japanese culture as a whole.
A samurai was expected to read and write, as well as to know some mathematics. Toyotomi Hideyoshi, a great samurai yet originally a peasant, could only read and write in hiragana and this was a significant drawback for him. Samurai were expected, though not required, to have interests in other arts such as dancing, Go, literature, poetry, and tea. Ota Dokan who first ruled Edo wrote how he was shamed to realize that even a commoner had more knowledge of poetry than he, and this made him study harder.
A shudo-type relationship between a man and a male youth; Painted hand-scroll (kakemono-e); Miyagawa Issho, ca. 1750; Private collection.Shudo (??), the tradition of love bonds between a seasoned and a novice samurai was held to be "the flower of the samurai spirit" and formed the real basis of the samurai esthetic. It was analogous to the educational Greek pederasty and an honored and important practice in samurai society. It was one of the main ways in which the ethos and the skills of the samurai tradition were passed down from one generation to another.
Another name for the bonds was was bido, (the beautiful way). The devotion that two samurai would have for each other would be almost as great as that they had for their daimyo. Indeed, according to contemporary accounts, the choice between his lover and his master could become a philosophical problem for samurai. Hagakure and other samurai manuals gave specific instructions in the way that this tradition was to be carried out and respected. After the Meiji Restoration and the introduction of a more westernised lifestyle, as bushido died out the masculine esthetic was replaced by the European feminine one, bringing with it the end of shudo. (Watanabe and Iwata, 1989)
Samurai culture ranged from a spartan, Zen Buddhism influenced, culture to an extravagant Kano-style culture. Most samurai lived simply, not due to preference, but necessity. As commerce developed in the Edo period samurai who were supplied with rice as wages were faced with inflating prices of common goods, forcing some samurai to do crafts or farm to make ends meet. However, these poor samurai still found the money and time to teach their children to value education. By the middle of the period samurai had to be ordered to practice their martial art skills. There were stories of samurai being threatened and forced to run away against well muscled workers and some were even beaten in fights. As samurai were specialists in fighting, out of shame these troubles were never reported but were still documented. Those samurai that were wealthy were masters over farmers, artisans and merchants.
A samurai was usually named by combining one kanji from his father or grandfather and one new kanji. Many samurai were intentionally given a name that was phonetically identical to that of a great ancestor; this was done in honor of the ancestor and with the hope that the new samurai would be as great. This name was applied after genpuku and replaced the childhood name. Most samurai had a second name and would also use their title as part of their name. Oda Nobunaga would therefore be officially called "Oda Kozukenosuke Owarinokami Nobunaga" (??????????) and would be referred to as "Oda Kozukenosuke" or "Oda Owarinokami".
The marriage of samurai was done by having a marriage arranged by someone with the same or higher rank than those being married. While for those samurai in the upper ranks this was a necessity (as most had few opportunities to meet a female), this was a formality for lower ranked samurai. Most samurai married women from a samurai family, but for a lower ranked samurai marriages with commoners were permitted. In these marriages a dowry was brought by the woman and was used to start their new lives.
A samurai could have a mistress but her background was strictly checked by higher ranked samurai. In many cases, this was treated like a marriage. "Kidnapping" a mistress, although common in fiction, would have been shameful, if not a crime. When she was a commoner, a messenger would be sent with betrothal money or a note for exemption of tax and ask for her parent's acceptance and many parents gladly accepted. If a samurai's wife gave birth to a son he could be a samurai.
A samurai could divorce his wife for a variety of reasons with approval from a superior, but divorce was, while not entirely nonexistent, a rare event. A reason for divorce would be if she could not produce a son, but then adoption could be arranged as an alternative to divorce. A samurai could divorce for personal reasons, even if he simply did not like his wife, but this was generally avoided as it would embarrass the samurai who had arranged the marriage. A woman could also arrange a divorce, although it would generally take the form of the samurai divorcing her. After a divorce samurai had to return the betrothal money, which often prevented divorces. Some rich merchants had their daughters marry samurai to erase a samurai's debt and advance their positions.
A samurai's wife would be dishonored and allowed to commit suicide if she were cast off.
The eldest son of the previous leader of a clan became the next leader of the clan. If the eldest son had passed away before the succession, the eldest son of the eldest son became the next leader. If the eldest son did not have children, the second son became the next leader. These rules were sometimes bent to follow the wishes of the former leader. When the next leader was too young or inexperienced, brothers and retainers of a previous leader acted as leader until the clan could be handed over to the true successor. Dividing a domain had been popular in the Kamakura and Ashikaga periods but declined later as it often weakened a clan.
Many samurai changed their name not because they did not like it, but because they were adopted into other clans. The first and foremost reason for doing this is that many clans wanted a successor with high abilities and skills even if it meant throwing out sons of the previous leader. If that successor happened to be from a higher clan, so much better. While this had to be approved by the shogunate or daimyo in the Edo period, there were many instances of it occurring. When a leader died without a son, but with a daughter, it was common to adopt a samurai from another clan and have him marry the daughter.
Samurai had a lot of children and faced with disease and wars, this often caused succession problems. These sometimes led to a decline or even a disintegration and eventual destruction of an entire clan. Several steps were taken to avoid this problem. Adoption was one step and other was called Koukaku (lit. decline in rank), where a son was given a new clan name and became a retainer and a vassal of their elder brother. Some samurai even became merchants or farmers because of Koukaku.
The philosophies of Buddhism and Zen, and to a lesser extent Confucianism, influenced the samurai culture as well as Shinto. Zen meditation became an important teaching due to it offering a process to calm one's mind. The buddhist concept of reincarnation and rebirth led samurai to abandon torture and needless killing, while some samurai even gave up violence altogether and became Buddhist monks after realizing how fruitless their killings were. Some were killed as they came to terms with these realizations in the battlefield.
Bushido, codified during Edo period, was the way of the samurai, yet its deceptive simplicity led to countless arguments over its interpretation. Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai by Yamamoto Tsunetomo is a manual of instruction into the way of the samurai. Even as it was published, it received a number of reviews that criticized its strict and impersonal interpretations. If the lord is wrong, for example if he ordered a massacre of civilians, should he observe Loyalty to massacre as ordered or should he observe Rectitude to let the civilians escape unharmed? If a man had sick parents but committed an unforgivable mistake, should he protect his Honor by committing Seppuku or should he show Courage by living with dishonor and care for his parents?
The incident of 47 Ronin caused debates about the righteousness of the samurai's actions and how bushido should be applied. They had defied the shogun by taking matters into their own hands but it was an act of Loyalty and Rectitude as well. Finally, their acts were agreed to be Rectitude but not Loyalty to the shogun. This made them criminals with conscience and eligible for seppuku.
The most famous book of kenjutsu, or sword fighting, dates from this period (Miyamoto Musashi's The Book of Five Rings, 1643). However, the larger part of the book is focused on the mentality of fighting. In an attempt to help develop the character needed to cope with moral demands that the practice of kenjutsu required many kenjutsu books from the Edo period also focused on spiritual issues.
Samurai with assorted weapons.The samurai used various weapons, but the katana is the weapon that is synonymous with samurai. Bushido taught that a samurai's soul is in their katana and sometimes a samurai is pictured as entirely dependent on the katana for fighting. The katana was a symbol of being a samurai and in that role was of much greater importance than the katana as a weapon. This contrasted with the crossbows of Europe or the swords of knights which were, principally, weapons for combat.
Upon reaching the age of thirteen, in a ceremony called Genpuku (??), a male child was given a wakizashi, an adult name and became a samurai. This also gave him the right to wear a katana though it was usually sealed to prevent its accidental drawing. A katana and a wakizashi together are called a daisho (lit. "big and small").
The wakizashi itself was a samurai's "honour blade" and purportedly never left the samurai's side. He would sleep with it under his pillow and it would be taken with him when he entered a house and had to leave his main weapons outside.
The Tanto was a small dagger sometimes worn in place of the Wakizashi in a daisho. The tanto was used to commit seppuku.
The samurai's weapon of choice was the yumi (bow) and it was unchanged for centuries until the introduction of gunpowder and the rifle in the 16th century. The Japanese style compound bow was not as powerful as the Eurasian reflex composite bow, having an effective range of 50 metres or less (100 metres if accuracy was not an issue). It was usually used on foot behind a tedate (??), a large and mobile bamboo wall, but it could also be used from horseback. The practice of shooting from horseback became a Shinto ceremony of Yabusame (???).
In the 15th century, the yari (spear) also became a popular weapon, displacing the naginata from the battlefield as personal bravery became less of a factor and battles became more organized. A charge, mounted or dismounted, was more effective when using a spear than a katana and it offered better than even odds against a samurai using a tachi, a katana adapted for mounted combat. In the Battle of Shizugatake where Shibata Katsuie was defeated by Toyotomi Hideyoshi, then known as Hashiba Hideyoshi, the Seven Spearmen of Shizugatake (??????) played a crucial role in the victory.
One of the biggest controversies surrounding the weapons of the samurai is whether samurai ever charged on horseback. Horses of that time, although strong, were smaller and it was questionable how well they would perform carrying a heavily armored samurai. A traditional belief held that samurai mainly fought on horseback acting as heavy cavalry and charged through hapless foot soldiers. It is currently believed that samurai mainly fought on foot and used horses for transportation and only occasionally charged on disarrayed and retreating enemies. The Battle of Nagashino was one such battle where samurai supposedly charged on horseback.
After the matchlock rifle was introduced from Europe, samurai started practicing with that weapon. It became the favored weapon of some samurai for sniping on the battle field as samurai were rewarded for every enemy he took down himself, though commanding was an important aspect of a samurai's warrior abilities. Conscripted soldiers also used matchlock rifles, but rather than sniping, fired in volleys to break up enemy ranks. Toward the end of the feudal period, some samurai organized dragoons as part of their troops and some were reportedly used in the Battle of Sekigahara and later battles.
Some samurai went unarmed onto the battle fields, apart from their katana (for example Takeda Shingen). This did not mean that they fought using their katana, but rather they focused on commanding and were confident that they could trust those they commanded for protection. In the Battle of Kawanakajima, Shingen was almost killed when a plan went wrong and troops of Uesugi Kenshin charged Shingen's lines. Shingen's troops were unaware that his entrapment plan had been detected and with only half of his troops and completely surprised, Shingen himself had to defend his life with the wooden stick that he used to order attacks. The rest of his soldiers barely returned in time to save Shingen and the rest of his force from being completely wiped out. Legend says that it was Uesugi Kenshin who personally rode up and attacked Takeda Shingen with his sword.
Some other weapons used by samurai were jo, bo, grenade, catapult and cannon. In battles during the Meiji restoration, more modern weapons such as the Gatling gun and rifles were used.
Etymology of samurai and related words
The kanji character for Samurai.The term Samurai originally meant "those who serve in close attendance to nobility", and was written in the Chinese character (or kanji) that had the same meaning. In Japanese, it was originally pronounced in the pre-Heian period as saburapi and later as saburai, then samurai in the Edo period. In Japanese literature, there is an early reference to samurai in the Kokinshu (???, early 10th century):
Attendant to your nobility
Ask for your master's umbrella
The dews 'neath the trees of Miyagino
Are thicker than rain
The word bushi (??, lit. "warrior or armsman") first appears in an early history of Japan called Shoku Nihongi (????, 797 A.D.). In a portion of the book covering the year 723 A.D., Shoku Nihongi states: "Literary men and Warriors are they whom the nation values". The term bushi is of Chinese origin and adds to the indigenous Japanese words for warrior: Tsuwamono and Mononofu. The terms bushi and samurai became synonymous near the end of the 12th century, according to William Scott Wilson in his book Ideals of the Samurai--Writings of Japanese Warriors. Wilson's book thoroughly explores the origins of the word warrior in Japanese history as well as the Kanji (Chinese symbols) used to represent the word. Wilson states that Bushi actually translates as "a man who has the ability to keep the peace, either by literary or military means, but predominantly by the latter".
It was not until the early modern period, namely the Azuchi-Momoyama period and early Edo period of the late 16th and early 17th centuries that the word saburai was replaced with samurai. However, the meaning had changed long before that.
A Samurai katana in koshirae.During the era of the rule of the samurai, the term yumitori (??, "bowman") was also used as an honorary title of an accomplished warrior even though swordsmanship had become more important. (Japanese archery (kyujutsu) is still strongly associated with the war god Hachiman.)
A samurai with no attachment to a clan or daimyo (??) was called a ronin (??). In Japanese, the word ronin means "wave man", a person destined to wander aimlessly forever, like the waves in the sea. The word came to mean a samurai who was no longer in the service of a lord because his lord had died, because the samuari had been banished or simply because the samurai chose to become a ronin.
The pay of Samurai was measured in koku of rice (180 liters; enough to feed a man for one year). Samurai in the service of the han are called hanshi.
The following terms are related to samurai or the samurai tradition:
a cultured warrior symbolized by the kanji for "bun" (literary study) and "bu" (military study or arts)
A martial house or a member of such a house
An ancient term meaning a warrior.
A shortened form of Bugeisha (???), lit. martial art man.
A word roughly meaning "gentleman," it is sometimes used for samurai, in particular in words such as bushi (??, meaning warrior or samurai).
An old term for a soldier popularized by Matsuo Basho in his famous haiku. Literally meaning a strong person.
tsuwamono domo ga
yume no ato
All that remains
Of soldiers’ dreams
(trans. Lucien Stryk)
Samurai in popular culture
Actor Kotaro Satomi on the set of Mito KomonJidaigeki (lit. historical drama) has always been a staple program on Japanese movies and TV. The programs typically feature a samurai with a kenjutsu who stood up against evil samurai and merchants. Mito Komon (????), a fictitious series of stories about Tokugawa Mitsukuni's travel is a popular TV drama in which Mitsukuni travels disguised as a retired rich merchant with two unarmed samurai disguised as his companions. He finds trouble wherever he goes, and after gathering evidence, he has his samurai knock around unrepentantly evil samurai and merchants, before revealing his identity. It is then obvious to the villans that he can destroy their entire clan and the villains surrender in the hope that his punishments will not extend to their families.
The samurai-themed works of film director Akira Kurosawa are among the most praised of the genre, influencing many filmmakers across the world with his techniques and storytelling. Notable works of his include The Seven Samurai, in which a besieged farming village hires a collection of wandering samurai to defend them from bandits, Yojimbo, where a former samurai involves himself in a town's gang war by working for both sides, and The Hidden Fortress, in which two foolish peasants find themselves helping a legendary general escort a princess to safety. The latter was one of the primary inspirations for George Lucas's Star Wars, which also borrows a number of aspects from the samurai, for example the Jedi Knights of the series.
Samurai films and westerns share a number of similarities and the two have influenced each other over the years. Kurosawa was inspired by the works of director John Ford and in turn Kurosawa's works have been remade into westerns such as The Seven Samurai into The Magnificent Seven and Yojimbo into A Fistful of Dollars. There is also an anime adaption (Samurai 7) of "The Seven Samurai" which spans many episodes.
Another fictitious television series, Abarembo Shogun, featured Yoshimune, the eighth Tokugawa shogun. Samurai at all levels from the shogun down to the lowest rank, as well as ronin, featured prominently in this show.
Shogun is the first novel in James Clavell's Asian Saga. It is set in feudal Japan around the year 1600 and gives a highly fictionalized account of the rise of Tokugawa Ieyasu to the Shogunate, seen through the eyes of an English sailor whose fictional heroics are loosely based on William Adams' exploits.
A Hollywood movie, The Last Samurai, containing a mixture of fact and fiction, was released in 2003 to generally good reviews in North America. The film's plot is loosely based on the 1877 Satsuma Rebellion led by Saigo Takamori, and also on the story of Jules Brunet, a French army captain who fought alongside Enomoto Takeaki in the Boshin War. The life-style and the war tactics shown in the movie The Last Samurai are those of out-country samurai of the Sengoku jidai, precisely of the era before 1543; not those in the 19th century. An actual battle of that period was only a little different from those involved the American or European armies, a key difference being a katana to be waved to signal soldiers to charge instead of a saber.
The movie Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, starring actor Forest Whitaker takes as its central character a black assassin in contemporary America who gains inspiration from the Hagakure. The soundtrack album positions hip hop against readings of the Hagakure.
Kill Bill by Quentin Tarantino can be described as a glorification of the samurai sword, katana. It is primarily inspired by anime and relates little to the samurai. This same distortion of samurai culture continues onto the low-budget world of the cult film, where in films such as Samurai Vampire Bikers From Hell, the primary characters attempt to portray a lineage to the samurai but are more closely link to the anime or comic book culture of the late twentieth century.
The samurai have also appeared frequently in Japanese comics (manga) and animation (anime). Most common are historical works where the protagonist is either a samurai or former samurai (or another rank/position) who possesses considerable martial skill. Two of the most famous examples are Lone Wolf and Cub, where the former proxy executioner for the Shogun and his toddler son become hired killers after being betrayed by other samurai and nobles, and Rurouni Kenshin, where a former assassin, after helping end the Bakumatsu era and bringing about the Meiji era, finds himself protecting newfound friends and fighting off old enemies while upholding his oath to never kill again through the use of a reverse-bladed sword.
Samurai-like characters are not just restricted to historical settings and a number of works set in the modern age, and even the future, include characters who live, train and fight like samurai. Notable examples include Goemon Ishikawa XIII from the Lupin III series of comics, television series, and movies, and Motoko Aoyama from the romantic comedy Love Hina. Some relevance to the samurai can even be seen in the show Beyblade, which is set in the present. One character, Jin of the Gale, seems to be a mix of samurai and ninja traits. Another anime involving samurai is 2004's Samurai Champloo, which portrays Edo-period Japan combined with modern street-culture and hip-hop. One of the show's main characters is Jin, once an accomplished samurai who became a wondering ronin after killing his master.
Usagi Yojimbo, the longest running American samurai comic book to date.American comic books have adopted the character type for stories of their own. For instance, the Marvel Universe superhero Wolverine during the 1980s attempted to use the ideals and concept of the samurai as a means to control his violent urges in a constructive manner. The ronin have also been a feature in popular series such as Ronin by Frank Miller and Usagi Yojimbo by Stan Sakai
Samurai are also heroes and enemies in many games where they are generally depicted wielding katana as foot soldiers. An example of one such American game is the Age of Empires series. Some popular Japanese titles featuring samurai include Samurai Warriors, Seven Samurai and there is even a lead character portraying a samurai in the Sci-Fi thriller game Xenosaga Episode II: Jenseits von Gut und Böse. Jin Uzuki, Shion Uzuki's brother, is a Samurai wannabe who fights only with a sword, trying to force his Kimono styles onto his sister.
The concept of a samurai, as opposed to that of a knight, has led to a major gap in how a warrior or a hero is characterised in Japan and the rest of the world. A samurai does not have to be tall and heavily muscled to be strong - he can be barely five feet tall, seemingly weak and even handicapped. He can even be she. Equating size with power and strength does not readily appeal to the Japanese aesthetic. Perfect examples of this can be found in the Blind Swordsman Zatoichi movie series or Lady Toda Mariko from James Clavell's Shogun. Ancient Japanese heroes are often flawed individuals who gain strength from what other cultures would only see as a form of weakness.
Currently, samurai are interpreted as rolemodels with an especially enthusiastic movment within the US. They are looked up to instead of the traditional ideals of European knighthood. Some people, like Nathan Pardee, also try to immitate their looks and abilities while not falling into the traditional Asian ethnic group
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Some mistakenly believe that Turkish oriental dancing is known as Çiftetelli due to the fact that this style of music has been incorporated into oriental dancing by Greeks and gypsies, illustrated by the fact that the Greek belly dance is called Tsifteteli. However, Turkish Çiftetelli is more correctly a form of wedding folk music, the part that makes up the lively part of the dance at the wedding and is not connected with oriental dancing.
Even though Turkish belly dancing has deep roots in the Sultan's palatial harems of the Ottoman Empire, Turkish belly dance today is closer to its Romany (Gypsy) heritage than its Egyptian and Lebanese sisters, developing from the Ottoman rakkas to the oriental dance known worldwide today. As Turkish law does not impose restrictions on Turkish dancers' movements and costuming as in Egypt, where dancers are prevented from from performing floor work and certain pelvic movements, Turkish dancers are often more outwardly expressive than their Egyptian sisters. Turkish dance also remains closer to its Romany roots because many professional dancers and musicians in Turkey continue to be of Romany heritage. Turkish dancers are known for their energetic, athletic (even gymnastic) style, and particularly, until the past few years, their adept use of finger cymbals, also known as zils. Connoisseurs of Turkish dance often say that a dancer who can't play zils is not an accomplished dancer. Another distinguishing element of the Turkish style is the use of the Karsilama rhythm in a 9/8 time signature, counted as 12-34-56-789. Turkish belly dance costumes can be very revealing, with the belt sometimes worn high up on the waist and split skirts which expose the entire leg, although dancers today are costuming themselves more like Egyptian dancers and wearing more modest "mermaid"-style skirts. The Turkish style is emphasized further by the dancer wearing high heels, and often platform shoes, to perform. Famous Turkish belly dancers include Tulay Karaca and Birgul Berai.
When immigrants from Turkey, Armenia, and the Arab states began to immigrate to New York in the 1930s and 1940s, dancers started to perform a unique mixture of these cultures in the nightclubs and restaurants. Often called "Classic Cabaret" or "American Cabaret" belly dance, these dancers are the grandmothers and great grandmothers of some of today's most accomplished performers, such as Anahid Sofian and Artemis Mourat.
Belly dancing in the Western world
The term "belly dancing" (believed by some to be a mis-transliteration of the term for the dance style Beledi or Baladi) is generally credited to Sol Bloom, entertainment director of the 1893 World's Fair, the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago. It was in the Egyptian Theater, where the USA first got a look at raqs dancers, when Bloom presented "The Algerian dancers of Morocco". The dancer who stole the show, and who continued to popularize this form of dancing was "Fatima", also known as Little Egypt. Her real name was Farida Mazar Spyropoulos and oddly enough she was neither Egyptian or Algerian, but Syrian.
The dance performed by Little Egypt became nicknamed the "Hootchy-Kootchy" or "Hoochee-Coochee", or the shimmy and shake, the origin of the name is unknown, and "danse du ventre", which is French for "belly dance". Today the word "hootchy-kootchy" means an erotic suggestive dance.
Fortunately for us this dance style created such a craze that Thomas Edison made several movies of dancers in the 1890's. Included in these are the Turkish dance, Ella Lola, 1898 and Crissie Sheridan in 1897 both located for on-line viewing through the Library of Congress. Another in this collection is Princess Rajah dance from 1904 which features a dancer playing finger cymbals, doing 'floor work' and balancing a chair in her teeth.
Add to this the sensational stories of Mata Hari, who was convicted in 1917 by the French for being a German spy during World War I and that belly dance was only viewable at vaudeville and in burlesque shows gave belly dance a very questionable reputation amongst polite society. Hollywood didn't help any by only having three roles for a belly dancer (that of slave to be saved, background dancer for the main characters to talk, or deceitful woman who uses her wiles to trick the main character) which created stigmas involving belly dance that many dancers and instructors are working hard to overcome.
While the beautiful classical Raqs Sharqi is still popular in the west, dancers here have also embraced other forms such as Tribal Style and ATS inspired by the folkloric dance styles of India, the Middle East and North Africa as well as Flamenco. Dancers in the United States while respecting the roots of Belly Dance are also exploring and creating within the dance form to address their own needs. Many women today in the US and Europe approach Belly Dance as a tool for empowerment, visioning and strengthening in the body, mind and spirit. Issues of body image, self esteem, voice, healing from sexual violation, sisterhood, and self authentication are regularly addressed in Belly Dance classes everywhere.
Belly Dance in the U.S.A
Tribal-style belly dancersWith its initial emergence at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial, the last four decades of the 20th century moved Belly Dance in the USA more mainstream. With the movement of exploration in the East in the late 1960's many people became interested in everything Eastern, including dance. Many touring Middle Eastern or Eastern bands took dancers with them as they toured for a visual representation of their music. This created interest by the attendees who often said to themselves, "That looks so easy. I bet I could do that." Many took lessons from teachers where and when they were available. This had the great effect of creating many beautiful dancers who have continued to move belly dancing forward. At the same time it ended up creating diverse names for the same simple movement and the need to have a 'style' as each teacher tried to distinguish differences in their way of teaching from other teachers. This has perhaps hampered belly dance from acceptance by the more established dance forms because there is no nationally recognized choreography terms that can be used to create repeatable dances.
'Cabaret' or 'stage' styles have flourished in the US throughout the 20th century due to its flashy and exotic overtones. Often associated with Raqs Sharqi, the mainstays of costume for this style includes a fitted top or bra (usually with fringe of beads or coins), a fitted hip belt (again with a fringe of beads or coins), and leg coverings that include harem pants or skirts (straight, layered, circular, or paneled). In the US it also includes a 'veil': a 3.5 to 4 yard piece of fabric that is used in part of the dance to move about and frame movements for the dancer. In the 1940s King Farouk of Egypt brought Russian ballet instructor Ivanova to teach his daughters, and it was she who first taught the great dancer Samia Gamal to use the veil to improve her arm carriage. Most Egyptian dancers use the veil as an opening prop which they discard within the first few minutes of their routines, while Western dancers will use the veil for an entire song. Recently added costuming options include full beaded dresses, called baladi dresses.
There is a recent movement in the USA called American Tribal Style Belly Dance or ATS. Tribal Style represents everything from Folkloric inspired dances to a fusion of ancient dance techniques from North India, the Middle East and Africa.
Male belly dancing
There is much debate over where and when men became part of the belly dance world. Many believe that men have no place in this art form, which is frequently and erroneously mistaken to be historically female. However, dancers such as Carolina Varga-Dinicu, Tariq Sultan, and Jasmin Jahal have produced ample evidence to the contrary, with male eunuchs guarding the Ottoman Sultan's harem's often being dressed up to dance for the palace women. (Ottoman Empire's rakkas).
No longer the "set pieces" or props for the women, male bellydancers today are becoming, if not completely commonplace, at least more visible. Whether or not there are differences between male and female belly dancing (differences in costuming, attitude, and choreography dynamics) is a subject of debate among both male and female dancers.
Well-known male dancers in the US from 1970s onward include Bert Balladine, John Compton, Adam Basma, Ibrahim Farrah, Yousry Sharif, Aziz, and Amir. Some of these dancers are American-born, others were immigrants from the Middle East and Europe. Basma and Farrah were born in Lebanon. Sharif (who hails from Egypt and relocated to the US over a decade ago) was a member of Mahmoud Reda's dance ensemble, the first national dance troupe in Egypt. Directed by Mahmoud Reda, a former gymnast who represented Egypt in the Olympics, The Reda Ensemble has continuously existed for over four decades. In addition there are other male bellydancers that have made an impact on the dance form from around the world, most notably Horacio Cifuentes who has infused his ballet background with the various types of middle-eastern dance to create an impact on both male and female bellydance styles.
Given the recent boom in interest regarding belly dance, a new generation of male dancers have embraced the form. As with female dancers, many of these "next-generation" male dancers go by a single name.
Health and belly dancing
The benefits of belly dance are both mental and physical. Dancing is a good cardio-vascular work out, helps increase flexibility and focuses on the torso or 'core muscles'. It is suitable for all ages and body types and can be as physical as the participant chooses to make it. Individuals would be wise to consult a doctor before starting belly dance, just as with starting any new exercise routine. It is also advised that one talks with the instructor to see what level his or her classes are geared for. Mental health benefits, for many bellydancers, include an improved sense of wellbeing, elevated body image and self-esteem as well as a generally positive outlook that comes with regular, enjoyable exercise.
There may also be some benefit from belly dancing for women when the time comes for childbirth, as the movements strengthen and tone the pelvic floor muscles and the woman becomes more familiar with the way her muscles work. The hip circling movements used in the dance may releive some of the discomforts of labor