In popular culture, samurais are depicted as brave, inflexible warriors, who master the ancient fighting techniques and force themselves to follow a hardline moral code. One can easily picture them meditating under a blossoming cherry tree, or committing seppuku to prevent dishonor. But what lies behind their turbulent history where fiction and fantasy soaked in?
The samurai legend originates feudal Japan. As the etymology of the name suggests (‘the one who serves’), they were first employed by powerful landowners as bodyguards, quartermasters or property managers. Their area of influence grew as peasant hamlets, burdened by heavy taxes, asked landowners for protection. At some point, the rising authority of local lords challenged that of the Emperor, right under the nose of his counselors settled in Kyōto.
Soon enough, the reputation of samurai soldiers preceded them on the battlefield. Redoubtable, as fearsome as the wild Huns, they fired arrow after arrow from their fast-paced horses. They were not men anymore, but shadows or red and silver. Ultimately, as shoguns – sort of military dictators – rose to power and contested the Emperor’s authority, samurais achieved recognition. Bloody clan wars followed; far from the subtlety that Westerners often ascribe to those wise, honorable men, the soldiers earned a deserved reputation of violence.
Samurais undoubtedly knew how to fight – the result of a long and meticulous training in the manipulation of katana (saber) and yumi (longbow). Those armored specters considered war a true way of life – and death – as codified by the Bushidō, or ‘Way of the Warrior’. “Sword and mind must be united. Technique by itself is insufficient, and spirit alone is not enough,” preached Jirōkichi Yamada. The samurai attitude is that of unity with one’s natural surroundings, and of awareness of one’s imminent death. That spirit is transparent on the eve of battle, as a samurai soldier polishes his richly decorated armor, sprays perfume on his hair tied in a bun, and puts on a helmet spiked with devil’s horns. The great care given to appearance and hygiene demonstrate their rigorous discipline – a samurai soldier must be beyond reproach until his very end. Besides, death is better than dishonor, hence the famous practice of seppuku (literally “belly-cutting”), a Japanese suicide where one cuts open his belly with a katana. (A quick sword beheading generally completed that practice, otherwise the samurai would bleed to death during several, most excruciating, hours.)
Sometimes, seppuku did not even involve a katana: towards the end of a major clan war in 1185, the six-year-old Emperor Antoku voluntarily threw himself into the open sea rather than facing a humiliating defeat. The local legend holds it that the young Emperor then reincarnated into a crab… (To this day, when a Japanese angler catches a crab with a face-like shell, he throws it back into water.) That defeat was no mere anecdote: it ended the Gempei War and proclaimed the samurai counter-revolution at the end of the 12th century. From then on, samurai were to impose themselves in the Japanese political landscape for about seven centuries, dictating their moral principles steeped in Confucianism and Zen philosophy.
Another episode, extracted from the 16th century military chronicles, tells of the scope of honesty and rectitude in the samurai behavior. In 1547, two samurais named Uemon and Sekisaemon fought “like eight years-old” with bare hands, for something trivial. When he heard about the incident, their employer ordered them executed. Why? “A swordless fight is not a fight at all; when one fights, one is expected to fight to death, or he does not deserve to be called a Samurai.” That adamant philosophy guides every decision, and although a soldier welcomes death like an old friend, he is very respectful of the value of his enemies on the battlefield.
Samurais have also inherited a reputation for loyalty in the Westerner’s eye. Historical accounts, however, do not back that assumption: despite being very loyal to their clan and their own blood, samurais could switch sides rapidly. Some protected the Emperor as his authority was threatened; some favored the shoguns; others ‘aristocracized’ themselves lusting after the notorious rank of Daimyō. Throughout the 16th century, as the archipelago slowly but surely achieved peace, samurais gave up the sword for bureaucratic jobs. (They did not actually give up the sword, as many wore two of different lengths – known as daishō – to show they belonged to that elite cast.)
Perhaps was it the time when the figure of the wise, lettered samurai emerged? Most of them did not have an aristocratic background – lots were rice field farmers longing for a better rank. Nevertheless, bushido-related practices encouraged reading, introspection, meditation, spiritual awareness. Taira Tadanori, a legendary general who took part in the decisive Gempei War, was known for mastering both ‘the bun and the bu’ – the pen and the sword. This contributed to higher average level of literacy throughout Japanese society, which surprised many Western missionaries.
Did this progressive spirit also apply to the treatment of women? Samurais were exclusively men, choosing their spouses from higher classes through arranged marriages. Nevertheless, women had a critical role in a Samurai-ruled society: managing the household’s finances, raising the kids, defending the house… For that very reason, women were taught the arts of fighting with weapons devised for them: a pole weapon (naginata) and a dagger (kaiken) made up their home arsenal. They also did not hesitate to commit seppuku in case their honor was threatened!
Following seven centuries of glory, the glowing figure of the samurai faded away as the Meiji era kicked off in the late 1860s. Katanas were confiscated, feudal status abolished, and the Emperor made slowly his way back onto the throne of Japan. The archipelago bet on modernity; it opened to global trade and entered an era of steady progress. Samurais went underground, forming secret societies and keeping on with their ancient rituals. However, their free, honest spirit soaked through history, as it shaped a modern-day Japanese culture made of honor, respect, and slowness.
- Pierre-François Souyri, Les guerriers dans la rizière. La grande épopée des samouraïs (2017), éd. Flammarion.
- Andrew Rankin, Seppuku: A History of Samurai Suicide (2012), Kodansha USA.
- Adèle Van Reeth, “L’éthique des samouraïs” (Les Chemins de la Philosophie), France Culture, 22/10/2018.
- History.com Editors, “Samurai and Bushido”, History/A&E Television Networks, 28/10/2009.