Crash Course: Samurai

Thanks to all of you for your patience. It took three weeks (!!!) but I’m finally hooked back up to the internet! Hopefully posting will resume a regular schedule from here on out. 🙂

I’ve just moved to Kumamoto (in central Kyushu) and man, is there a pretty impressive castle in this town. To me, castles are one of the most visible reminders of the samurai age and Kumamoto has some heady credentials. It was here in Kumamoto that Saigo Takamori and his loyal followers made their last stand against the forces of the modernizing Emperor Meiji (think “Last Samurai” without the final charge).

“Lsat samurai” Saigo Takamori, in more casual attire

So who were Japan’s samurai? The word first appeared in the 10th century to denote a male member of the aristocratic class. As things heated up between the country’s two leading clans (the Minamoto – or Genji – and the Taira – aka the Heike) in the late 1100s, the concept of samurai morphed into that of “warrior”. Three centuries later, as the Warring States Period officially began, the image of the samurai as Japan’s quintessential knight in shining armor was cemented.

Samurai would have been pretty easy to pick out of a crowd in medieval Japan. Each carried with him at all times a set of swords – a katana, or long sword, that was used for fighting and a wakizashi, a smaller sword that was primarily used for the purpose of seppuku, ritual suicide. As hard as it may be for us to contemplate in the modern day, a samurai’s actions (including the time and manner of his death) were dictated by his adherence to bushido, a code known as “the way of the warrior”. Though more involved than I can explain in a simple blog entry, bushido governed everything in a samurai’s life, from his relationship with his lord to his families’ actions. Women could be considered samurai as well, albeit non-weapon-carrying ones for the most part, and were expected to adhere to the same strict rules as their husbands.

The Tokugawa stronghold of Nagoya Castle

Surprisingly enough, by the Tokugawa Era, the ruthless warrior image was mostly a thing of the past. As the Tokugawa Shoguns ushered in an unprecedented two centuries of peace, the samurai caste became obsolete.  Fighting skills atrophied in favor of bureaucratic abilities and samurai spent more time accompanying their masters to and from the capital every year than engaging in any actual battles. Since the samurai caste was reassured its place at the top of the food chain by the Tokugawa government (above farmers, artisans and merchants), by the time Commodore Perry arrived off Japan’s shores, the samurai were more concerned with guarding their wealth and secure place in the status quo than in losing their image as the proverbial warrior. (The majority of them had never fought any battles in the first place.)

Samurai are one of Japan’s most enduring symbols so you won’t have to look too hard on your travels to learn a little more about these Middle Aged macho men. Most castle exhibitions have at least some information on the samurai and museums like the National Museum in Tokyo and the Tokugawa Art Museum in Nagoya have excellent displays of samurai paraphernalia.

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