This edited article about the samurai originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 689 published on 29 March 1975.
“I am a very unimportant person!” boomed a samurai warrior wearing a lavender-coloured cloak over orange-tinted armour. “Perhaps none of you know my name,” he shouted at the ranks of Rokuhara’s rebel army. “I am a follower of the Lord Ashikaga, Shidara Goro Saemonnojo. If there is a follower of the lords of Rokuhara who is willing to fight me, let him gallop forward to test my skill.”
Two armies, that of the government and that of the rebels, stopped fighting and drew apart to stare in surprise at this solitary samurai. Then from the rebel side, an older samurai, about fifty years of age, charged forward. He wore armour laced with black cords and rode a nut-brown horse with a blue-tasselled saddle cloth.
“Though I am only an ignorant man,” he cried, “and although I am of inferior rank and may seem an unworthy foe, I, Saito Genki, am descended from General Toshihito. My family has for many generations followed the Way of the Warrior. If any survive this battle, let them tell their grandchildren how honourably I fought!”
Even as the old samurai finished his speech, the two warriors crashed together. Both fell from their horses. Shidara was the first on his feet and struck at his adversary’s head with his long sword but even as the death blow fell, Saito swung his blade up into Shidara’s body and both samurai fell dead upon the grass.
At once the two armies returned to battle in a great cloud of dust.
This combat between the samurai Shidara Goro and Saito Genki took place during a terrible civil war that tore Japan apart from 1180 to 1185 AD. At this time, and for many centuries after, the samurai and their code of Bushido, the Way of the Warrior, dominated Japanese civilization. Right up to the Second World War, this ferocious warrior-code with its total contempt for death and its incredible sense of loyalty seemed, to European eyes at least, to sum up the whole Japanese way of life; but it wasn’t always like that.
Japan had once been a very stable, peaceful place where warriors were scorned by the poetry-loving aristocracy. But this world collapsed in blood and confusion during the 12th century’s civil wars. From then on, the samurai, the fighting man, was the real master of Japan, either terrorizing peaceful people or keeping the peace beneath an iron-fisted dictatorship.
Samurai became Japan’s new aristocracy. Later on, laws were passed forbidding samurai to settle in the towns, while on the other hand, nobody but a samurai was allowed to carry a sword, two swords being the special mark of a fully-fledged samurai. From then on, the warriors were a hereditary class.
The Japanese warrior’s code of life was very strict. Above all else, a samurai must be loyal to his leader and be totally in control of himself, even when fighting or dying. Of course, such loyalty was rewarded, but for the samurai, this was not all that counted. One of the most famous examples of such ruthless loyalty is found in the Tale of the Forty-Seven Ronin.
Apparently, in the year 1701, a certain Lord Asano came to the Imperial Court where he was instructed in courtly manners and ceremony by a man named Kira. Somehow, Kira insulted Lord Asano so badly that Asano drew his sword and tried to kill him but Asano made the mistake of drawing his sword inside the Palace, an offence punishable by death. Since Lord Asano was a senior man, he wasn’t executed. Instead, he was ordered to commit Hara-kiri, ritual suicide, which he did.
When Asano’s forty-seven followers, his samurai, heard the news they were furious, though they decided to find out more about what had actually happened. A year passed, then the ruler of Japan decreed that Lord Asano’s family must give up their lands as part of the punishment for Asano’s crime. This act turned Asano’s samurai into ronin – men without a master. Legally, they were now free from further loyalty, but instead these Forty-Seven Ronin swore an oath to avenge their Lord.
For some while, they pretended to forget the whole incident, then on December 14th 1702, the ronin saw their chance. In a desperate commando-style assault on Kira’s house, they slew the man they considered responsible for Lord Asano’s death, placed his head on Asano’s grave, and then quietly surrendered to the authorities.
Strange as such attitudes seem to us, they were no stranger than the samurai’s whole way of life. In peace time, samurai dressed rather drably in dull blue, grey and brown. But in war, things were very different. Most warriors painted their faces and put on perfume before going into battle.
Most colourful of all, was the samurai’s armour and weapons, particularly if he was rich and powerful. Here is a contemporary description of a leading 14th century general.
“. . . the great Marshal Nagasaki himself, clad in crimson armour deepening in colour towards the surcoat, with a speckled underdress and wide short breeches of heavy silk. Eight golden dragons crested his silver starred helmet with a neck-shield of five pieces curving outwards behind. Likewise his iron greaves were silver-plated and his two swords decorated with gold. His horse was the finest in the eastern provinces. It was sixteen hands high, decked with fine plumes of bright yellow and its saddle was embellished with a picture of a ship aground on a beach at low tide, a picture drawn in pure gold leaf on spangled gold lacquer. The thirty-six arrows in Nagasaki’s quiver were white, with broad black spots in the middle and notches of silver, and he held a rush-bound bow by the centre.”
Even the proud knights of medieval Europe would have looked dull next to Marshal Nagasaki. Yet the violence beneath all this colourful pageantry made old Japan a rather sad place.
“The fleeting glory of the flowering trees testifies that all that flourishes must decay. The proud do not last for ever, their life is like a summer night’s dream. Warriors, too, must fall in the end, for they are like a lamp at the mercy of the wind.”
This was how the life of a samurai was described in old Japan. In fact, the samurai’s “flowering tree” survived right up to the middle of the 19th century because Japan kept itself grimly isolated from the rest of the world for so long. Then the Europeans arrived, and with their domineering behaviour and their modern industrial power, turned traditional Japan upside down.
A few samurai saw that Japan had to modernise or she would be conquered. These men overthrew the old government of the Shoguns, or leading generals, and brought the Emperor out of the political twilight where for many years he had been little more than a puppet.
Many other samurai resisted these changes, but Japan’s new Imperial Government now had a modern army with modern weapons. The colourful, old-fashioned samurai had little chance. In the winter of 1868-1869, the situation reached a climax when rebel samurai tried to capture the island of Hokkaido, then called Yezo. As soon as they landed, they sent a last plea to the Emperor.
“Men who have the hearts of samurai cannot turn into farmers or merchants. But, seeing the barren state of Tezo island, we thought it best to go there and, even under every hardship, level steep mountains and cultivate the desert.”
Their plea failed and by the summer of 1869 these last warriors and chieftains were crushed. The rebel samurai were forced to work as labourers, building a shrine in honour of dead Government soldiers, before finally being pardoned.
Within a few years, all the warrior-class’s special privileges had been abolished under new laws. The days of the samurai were ended and Japan at last entered the modern world.
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