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Some misconceptions about the Samurai

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Forum Shogun

Joined: 04 May 2006
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PostPosted: Mon May 22, 2006 11:50 pm    Post subject: Some misconceptions about the Samurai Reply with quote
Samurai hated guns, calling them "cowards' weapons"

Hollywood, along with the general public, has come to view the samurai as sword-wielding heroes of an age long gone. Guns just don't fit into our picture of that; therefore, samurai must not have used guns.

In fact, the Japanese were using guns more effectively than their European counterparts by the sixteenth century, as well as producing more accurate, durable varieties. The battle of Nagashino, where guns tore through charging samurai cavalry, is one of the most famous and influential battles in the history of the samurai. The samurai were not stupid; in fact, they were renown for their adaptability. The Mongolian invasion, Chinese royal culture, and enterprising Western powers all influenced medieval Japan at one time or another. In fact, the kimono, one of the most famous symbols of Japan, came from China during the Heian period. It was no different when the Portuguese introduced a devastating new weapon called the arquebus (or teppo, in Japanese). No matter how much the samurai loved their bow, they weren't oblivious to the fact that the gun obviously outclassed their previous artillery choice. Several forms of guns were used, from the general old-fashioned musket-like gun we tend to think about, to large hand cannons, to even the rare full canon (which were generally taken off of crashed European ships). They were all used with devastating efficiency. One of the greatest daimyo (general/feudal lord) of the Warring States era, Oda Nobunaga, was well renowned for his brilliance with gunnery tactics. Others, such as Takeda Shingen, Tokugawa Ieyasu, and Date Masamune were also well known for using snipers, entrenched artillery, and sometimes just mass amounts of gunners, with devastating results..

Some believe that because foot soldiers (ashigaru) were the primary users of guns the samurai must have detested them. Instead, the ashigaru were simply too disposable to teach them anything more complicated. This didn't mean that samurai were not also taught how to use guns; in fact, they were generally taught more in depth. It is also notable that, of the honors granted in battle, the one granted to a gun unit was surpassed only by taking a head in individual combat.

All Samurai followed a chivalrous code of ethics known as "Bushido"

With books titled "Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai" and "Budo Shoshinshu: The Code of the Samurai" flooding the market, one generally comes to think that the samurai ALL followed the Bushido, or else they weren't really samurai. This just isn't the case.

Bushi-do is correctly translated as "The Way of the Warrior". However, the Bushido was nothing more of an invention of the Edo Jidai (Edo era) meant to keep samurai subservient to their employing daimyos. The Edo Jidai was the 250 year long peace ruled over by the last shogunate, which directly proceeded the Warring States era (better known as the Sengoku Jidai). The shogunate was very paranoid during this period; it was, after all, the third shogunate, the first two having collapsed into warfare. Several new practices came into play during this time period; for example, daimyo were expected to spend part of their time in Edo (now known as Tokyo), the seat of the shogunate's power. This was to keep unruly daimyo (like Shimazu or Mori daimyo, who would later tear down the shogunal government) in check.

Another practice was a serious enforcement of a samurai's loyalty to his daimyo. During the Sengoku Jidai, there were several instances of samurai turning on their daimyo, most often to disastrous affects. The shogunate made turning on one's daimyo the most serious offense for a samurai.

Also, during this time of peace, the samurai no longer had as much purpose in Japanese society. They became administrators and small time government officials. With this pretty much 'excuse' for existence, a ronin named Yamaga Soko took the Confucian principals that had been governing Japanese life for centuries and gave the samurai a new reason for existence. Soko's codices later became the foundation for the bushido, which received great support from the shogunate. Remember, as stated earlier, the shogunate was looking for ways to insure that the samurai did not rise up against their daimyo. As one of Soko's rules was a complete, sincere devotion to one's feudal lord, this fit perfectly into the shogunate's paranoid attempts to suppress all possible revolts... and it worked.

Samurai before the Edo Jidai did NOT follow any "Bushi-do", then. In fact, there are so many examples of betrayal, uncouthness, and other acts completely contrary to the bushido in the Sengoku Jidai that it becomes blaringly obvious. This isn't to say that there weren't noble samurai. In fact, Uesugi Kenshin is renowned for his honor in his battles with Takeda Shingen, many actions which would later become impossible under the bushido.

Suicide was known as "Hara-Kiri"

Whenever a Westerner refers to the ritual suicide performed by samurai, they tend to say "Hara-Kiri". This is a very basic error. In reality, one would call it "seppuku".

That aside, many Westerners also have a false conception of what seppuku was. Most think that for any small misdeed, a samurai must rectify it by slitting his stomach. In reality, this was a concept of the Edo Jidai, much like the bushido spoken about in the previous section. Seppuku, at first, had two forms: 1.) it was a form of punishment given by your superior, less serious than an actual execution (which generally was beheading, crucifixion, or burning at the stake) or 2.) a way of escaping capture. The last part was taken by both the samurai/daimyo trapped in a doomed castle and the defeated soldier on the field.

Seppuku was also much harder than the one stab shown in movies. There were three generally accepted forms of seppuku: one straight horizontal line, two intersecting lines, or three horizontal lines. Afterwards a second called a kaishaku would behead the samurai, usually doing so just before the samurai cried out or succumbed to his pain. Occasionally, if the samurai either had no second, or if they were very tough, they would do without the beheading and simply wait to bleed to death.

Other forms of suicide were sometimes done: one very famous example is of Miura Yoshimoto, who actually beheaded himself at the battle of Arai Castle in 1516, when it became obvious his side had lost. (Some question the validity of this story).

A samurai was simply someone who followed the bushido code

As stated in an earlier section, we discussed how the bushido code was not necessarily the code of all samurai. Many people today who are not aware of this are also under the (somewhat) direct misunderstanding that a "samurai" was just someone who followed the bushido. Some people even believe that a samurai didn't even need to carry a weapon, as long as they followed the code.

This is perhaps the most absurd of all misconceptions. The samurai, no matter the period, was a member of the bushi (warrior) class in Japan. (the other three classes were artisans, peasants, and merchants). In the Sengoku Jidai, there were some possibilities of movement between the classes. For example, an ashigaru could be born a peasant, and, by surviving enough battles, could be elevated to the bushi class. Also, in the Edo Jidai, rich merchant could literally buy their way into the bushi class. However, the bottom line was a samurai was ALWAYS a bushi, no matter their class of birth (with the exception of the marchant example earlier, class divisions were strictly enforced during the Edo Jidai, and the class you were born in was your class till death). No matter whether you followed the bushido or not, even during the Edo Jidai, you were simply a samurai if you were born a samurai.

Ninja were cowardly, mystical assassins whom had a rivalry with the samurai

To begin this explanation its probably best to state the very basic misunderstanding: that ninja and samurai were two different types of warrior. In fact, ninja (or shinobi, as they were known during the Sengoku Jidai) were simply the special ops equivalent of the samurai. Some books and websites expound the idea that ninja were the warriors who were used when a daimyo needed something done that the "honorable samurai" could not do. Instead, when a job came along (such as spying, assassination, scouting, infiltrating, etc.) that your regular samurai simply was under qualified to do, a daimyo would seek out a samurai who was. There were some samurai who specialized in this; two famous examples were the Koga and Iga ninja who sided with Tokugawa Ieyasu. Hattori Hanzo, who was from the ninja, held the title of hatamoto (banner-bearer), the highest rank a samurai (and only a samurai) could have.

The ninja have been so butchered by Hollywood and popular misconception (on both sides of the Pacific) that there simply isn't room to dispel it all. Some fine places to learn about the ninja would be the two books put out by Stephen Turnbull. Irregardless, I will begin to explain some of the more famous misinformation. One simple example is the color ninja wore while on a night mission. Hollywood portrays them in black, in fact, they would wear dark blue (black outlines you at night). Another horrible fallacy is the so-called "ninja-to". The ninja sword is portrayed as straight, shorter, and with a square tsuba (guard). Websites explain that these swords were tools as well as weapons. The very simple truth is there were no "ninja-to". Ninja used the same exact weapons as any other samurai, and treated their weapon with the same respect. The second weapon that is poorly portrayed is the "ninja throwing star". More commonly called shuriken (this was the name for any small projectile weapon), a samurai would use a small knife or spike as opposed to a star. The ninja also used these weapons a lot less than one would expect. Shurikenjutsu was a real art, but it was used by different people during different times, and not always (or even generally) by ninja.

The use of "magic" is fortunately being more and more taken with a shaker of salt. Disappearing in a cloud of smoke, hand motions giving them super strength, and magic abilities like flight are all complete myths. Ninjutsu was simply the art of stealth; nowadays, its taken on the general form of bogus sensei teaching karate (at best) in black uniforms, along with some smoke bomb throwing.
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