The Samurai: Myth Versus Reality

The samurai… a timeless source of inspiration for movies, anime and, of course, video games. Well, they may not be quite what you think they were.

The samurai you typically see in media today are stretched and skewed from actuality, not to mention drawn from a small section of history. You’d think that the samurai were always one and the same based on the consistent images on TV, in manga, and throughout video games, but the truth is that samurai qualities have dramatically changed over time and the types of samurai you usually see in anime and games are the relatively recent manifestation of a constantly changing warrior class.

In fact, much of the inspiration for the samurai image we see today only emerged in the 17th century, and yet no matter what time period modern samurai entertainment claims to be set in, you see the same stereotypical samurai characteristics regardless of whether or not they are representative of their respective time frame.

Words like honour, loyalty, bushido, and the sword are commonly pinned to the samurai . However, in truth, none of these concepts were big factors of samurai culture for most of its history. What you see in the media about samurai is usually incorrect, offbase, or deeply exaggerated.

The samurai originated during the Heian period (794-1185 A.D.) in Japan (‘samurai’ is derived from ‘saburafu’, which means “to serve”). They were local strongmen employed by military nobles who brought them along as servants on trips to the capital. Despite what the typical modern samurai image may lead you to believe, there was nothing loyal, chivalrous, or noble about these men. If anything, they were ambitious warriors who sought to enrich themselves above all else. They were not loyal to their masters by decree of some unwritten honour code (read: bushido or “the way of the warrior” didn’t exist at this point), nor were they inherently good by any stretch of the imagination. They were loyal only because they were rewarded for their services, and their allegiances could shift at any time. The court provided strong monetary incentives to those who put down rebellions, and thus samurai would eagerly carry out orders no matter what moral strings were attached, often killing their fellow warriors. The samurai at this point in time were nothing but employed thugs; mercenaries with no calling to king or country.

That’s a great example of loyalty, right? Not at all. The idea of the “loyal warrior” is one of the stronger conceptions surrounding the samurai, but it wasn’t a factor until many centuries after their emergence. This can be misleading if you read old Japanese stories about famous warriors living in the 12th century, for instance, as there are many examples of the utmost loyalty in these tales. The thing is, many of these tales were taken out of their original context and rewritten centuries later to reflect the idealized values of that time, not those of the past. Many of these re-edited compilations are the versions that are presently in common circulation, and it can take some digging to unearth the older, less embellished editions.

To give you an example of how these stories have changed over time to reflect the idealized virtues of a particular era, consider the deaths of two famous Japanese generals: Minamoto no Yoshinaka and Minamoto no Yoshitsune. In the earliest versions of the Heike monogatari (a chronicle of the war between the Minamoto and Taira clans for dominance of Japan) written closest to the time of their deaths in the late 12th century, both warriors were described as being killed by their enemies. However, in later retellings (Tomoe and Yoshitsune: A 15th Century Chronicle, for example), both characters commit seppuku (ritual suicide) instead. This illustrates how history can be rewritten so that people see what they want to see in the past, whether or not it is true. It is important that we are aware that history can easily be manipulated if we fail to think critically and challenge what is incorrect.

Here’s another example of rewritten history. In the earliest sources revolving around Yoshitsune’s endeavours in the Genpei war, the name “Benkei” is never once mentioned. However, in Yoshitsune: A 15th Century Chronicle, a retelling of the same events, Yoshitsune befriends a seven-foot tall warrior monk named Benkei who becomes his sworn protector to the very end. The enormous monk is celebrated to this day for his undying devotion to Yoshitsune, and his famous standing-death has become a motif of extraordinary loyalty and purpose.

The truth is, Benkei probably never existed. He is more likely the fictive work of romanticizing minds in the 15th century who wished to embody the virtue of loyalty that was becoming a part of the idealized samurai of that time period. Considering the two examples I’ve just given of samurai ideals that developed over time (ritual suicide and loyalty), it’s no stretch of the imagination to consider that the samurai in existence prior to the Tokugawa period (1600-1868 A.D.) were nothing at all like those you see depicted today in anime, video games, and other mediums. It was not until the 17th century that the samurai would become anything like the characters who entertain and inspire us today.

Once again referring to the Heian period, the samurai became crucial to the protection of landholders and aristocrats over the course of this era and developed a “monopoly” of sorts over the conduct of warfare in Japan. If a conflict was to break out, you can be certain that all involved parties would bring in their samurai to do battle.

The widespread employment of samurai by nobles culminated in a conflict known as the Hogen Disturbance of 1156, wherein there was an internal conflict at court between the imperial family and the powerful Fujiwara family. Both sides summoned their retainers, who led armies of mounted warriors into the capital to battle for control of the imperial court. With the support of the Taira clan, Emperor Go-Shirakawa was able to defeat the Fujiwara family, who were backed by the Minamoto clan. However, just three years later, the Minamoto forces returned to fight against the Taira in what would become known as the Heiji Incident. The Minamoto warriors were again crushed and scattered. However, they would return again over twenty years later to stage the Genpei War (1180-1185), at last emerging victorious over the Taira clan. Minamoto no Yoritomo would then set up the Kamakura bakafu, marking the beginning of samurai rule that would last for hundreds of years.

However, in the Sengoku Jidai period (1467-1573), peasants were reintroduced to Japanese warfare as foot soldiers for the first time in centuries, and thus the samurai were no longer the exclusive practitioners of war. They took on the role of officers so that they were elevated above the conscripted peasants, but needed to find more tangible ways to distinguish themselves from the commoners. Accordingly, they were forced to answer a difficult question: what made them inherently better than any other person?

 

The Sword
The samurai’s increasingly desperate need to establish their supremacy as warriors led to the widespread adoption of what is perhaps the most recognizable aspect of the samurai as we see them today: the sword; the supposed soul of the samurai. The sword is something that the average present-day anime or game enthusiast considers integral to the samurai, but in reality, it only became an essential part of their culture a few hundred years before their elimination in the Meiji era.

Prior to the 15th and 16th centuries, do you know what the favoured weapon of the samurai was? It certainly wasn’t the katana, the broad sword, or any other type of sword. In fact, there’s no mention whatsoever of the sword as the “soul of the samurai” prior to a statement made by Tokugawa Ieyasu at the beginning of the 17th century. Prior to this time, the samurai were in fact mounted archers who were highly skilled with the bow and arrow, occasionally using other weapons if necessary. For the greater part of their history, the sword was not an important weapon to the samurai.

It wasn’t until the 15th and 16th centuries when the samurai were pressured to elevate themselves above the common soldier that there was a massive emergence of sword schools. Since the size of armies had increased tremendously during this time period (as a result of reintroducing peasant foot soldiers to warfare, battles were now fought by 10-20,000 soldier armies), the sword became practical in the chaos of close-quarters combat. Thus the samurai would train to become master swordsmen so that they could confirm their martial skills as superior to those of the peasantry.

This also marked the beginning of a considerable focus on the martial arts and the ongoing task of perfecting oneself through them. The practice of martial arts led many samurai to wander across the land, challenging the students and masters of other schools to establish their supremacy. That almost sounds like the synopsis for a Way of the Samurai game, doesn’t it?

Considering that the samurai were horsemen who wielded the bow and arrow for the better part of their existence, it’s interesting that we almost never see them depicted this way in video games or other media. But that’s not all that’s gone awry in the samurai images of contemporary times.

 

On Bushido and Honour
Despite its assumed antiquity, bushido or “the way of the warrior”, is an even more recent aspect of samurai culture than the sword. In fact, the term itself was coined in modern times, so if you were to ask a samurai about bushido even in the 17th century, they would likely stare at you in confusion. Discussion of the origins of a less contrived samurai ‘honour code’ lends itself to better introspection. The results of any research into the subject reveal limited evidence of honour (by Western standards) in samurai culture. Prior to the Tokugawa era, the only notable attempt to corral a strict set of samurai values can be attributed to Hojo Soun (1432? – 1519) who wrote “Lord Soun’s Twenty-One Articles”, a number of lessons directed at regulating the behaviour of samurai retainers. Hojo Soun’s work was before its time, though, and a prevalent structure of samurai values would not be solidified for many years to come.

Yet even when samurai ideals became most rigid, it seems likely that more so than any written code, it was a new brand of Confucianism which gained popularity in the Tokugawa era that inspired much of the samurai ethics as we know them today. Neo-Confucianism put loyalty at the very core of its ideology and promoted rationalism, social harmony, and learning. Not only do these ideas capture the essence of the idealized Tokugawa samurai but they also reflect the stereotypes common to 21st century samurai entertainment.

With regard to the more open-ended matter of honour itself, what did honour mean to the samurai? Both inside and outside of battle, it certainly meant nothing to the samurai of the Heian age. However, it became exceedingly important in the late stages of samurai history, ironically in a time of peace; the Tokugawa era, wherein it prominently factored into political and social conduct. However, our Western conception of ‘honour’ did not mean very much to the samurai at any point in time as far as the conduct of battle was concerned. The samurai valued practicality above all else. In war they would frequently break truces, ambush opponents, attack in the middle of the night, and make use of any deception that would give them the edge. The concept of honour, as we see it in the relatively honest conduct of warfare in medieval Europe did not have an equivalent in Japanese culture. There was nothing at all ‘honourable’ about their wartime tactics by our definition of the term. If one was not on their guard against deception at all times, it could spell ruin for their forces.

You’ve probably noticed a recurring theme throughout this article. That is to say that the samurai image we see today is drawn almost entirely from the Tokugawa era, neglecting the greater portion of the samurai’s existence. That considered, here is some food for thought: the Tokugawa era was a time of previously unmatched peace in Japanese society. There wasn’t any genuine need for specialized warriors, and thus the samurai lived on primarily in name and status only. Their swords were essentially for decorative purposes (as well as inconsequential dueling), and a samurai’s ideal objective was to attain a post in the government, not to ride into battle and kill people for money. They were essentially nothing more than a ruling class privileged by birthright, and were extremely disconnected from the fierce samurai warriors of the past. It became necessary to create traditions like the wearing of swords, ceremonial tea-drinking, and other exclusive “samurai traits” in order to stave off their inevitable abolishment. Admittedly, they were a superfluous burden on Japanese civilization; an inflated ruling class (5-10% of population) that contributed little to society but drained a considerable amount of wealth. That said, their elimination in the years of the Meiji Restoration was most definitely warranted for the betterment of the nation.

When stacked up against their ruthless warrior ancestors, the Tokugawa samurai samurai were like cheap imitators that fail to capture the essence of their source material but created a new phenomenon instead. The most important knowledge to take away from this study is the understanding that the samurai we see in popular culture today are a fabrication based upon the Tokugawa fabrication of the original samurai. Just like Tokugawa ‘samurai’ nobles and the writers of such stories as Tomoe and Yoshitsune: A 15th Century Chronicle before them, we’ve taken fragments of a past culture and infused it with embellished or purely fictional elements so that it appeals to our ideals.

Samurai images today take the Tokugawa samurai, tailor it to the desires of a modern audience, overlook the fact that the samurai were nothing like we imagine them to be for the majority of their existence, and repackage the constantly-changing warrior class into a simplified stereotype that sits well with our view of idealized heroism and other exciting ideas. For the West, the appeal of the samurai figure is just another example of our infatuation with Orientalism: the supposed exoticism of East Asia. On the part of the Japanese, the pop culture reinvention of the samurai — a societal class that that hasn’t existed for over one hundred years, and arguably lost its essence long before then — exemplifies an urge to make Japan stand apart from the rest of the world. The reinvented samurai and their deeply embellished, often fictional ideals set up yet another front for Japanese culture with which the common Japanese person is likely as mystified as any foreigner.

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