WHO WERE THE SAMURAI? Samurai were trained warriors who were hired by a Daimyo to serve in return for land, money & power. They were thought that honor was more important than life, and dying a honorable death was important too, (a honorable death was not dying in your bed, but dying in battle). Learn more about these warriors below.
Around 922 CE, the rule of the wealthy nobles of the Fujiwara clan declined. The government was running out of money & losing authority over larger landholders. These landholders were called Daimyo. They paid no taxes to the government & had their own private armies of trained warriors called Samurai, who are similar to knights from the Middle Ages. Daimyo hired Samurai to protect themselves & attack other Daimyo in return for money, land & a little bit of power. Daimyo often fought among themselves to try to gain more wealth & power. As the power of the Daimyo increased, the central government weakened. Small landowners wanted protection. To win the aid of a more powerful lord, they pledged their loyalty to that lord. A person who received land & protection from a lord in return for loyalty was called a vassal. The lord-vassal system increased the power of Daimyo, & marked the beginning of feudalism in Japan. While the nobles fought among themselves, the Emperor remained in office, but no longer held real power. Military leaders called Shoguns took control. Shogun means "supreme commander of the army." A Shogun ruled on the Emperor's behalf, but usually, his own interest came first. Minamoto Yoritomo became the first Shogun in 1192. As Shogun, he ruled more than just the army—he ruled the country. Japan was under a Shogunate, or a military government for nearly 700 years after that.
Samurai went into battle in heavy armor. Samurai armor was unique. It was made of rows of small metal plates coated with lacquer & laced together with colorful silk cords. This type of armor was strong, yet flexible enough for the samurai to move freely. Boxlike panels covered the samurai's chest & back. Metal sleeves covered his arms. Broad shoulder guards & panels that hung over his hips provided additional protection. Some samurai wore shin guards as well. Next, after putting on his body armor, the samurai put on a ferocious looking iron mask that was meant to scare his opponents as well as protect his face. Last was the helmet. Before putting on his helmet, a samurai would burn incense in it. That way, his head would smell sweet if it were cut of in battle. Samurai fought with bows & arrows, swords, spears & other weapons. A samurai's wooden bow can be up to 8 feet long. In hand-to-hand combat, foot soldiers used spears to knock riders off their horses & to kill an enemy on foot. A samurai's most prized weapon however, was his sword. Japanese sword makers were excellent craftsmen, and samurai swords were the finest in the world. They were flexible enough not to break, but hard enoughr to be razor-sharp. Samurai carried 2 types of swords. To fight, they used a long sword with a curved blade. A shorter sword was used for cutting off heads. Wearing a sword was a privilege & a right of the samurai. Swords were passed down through generations of warrior families & given as prizes to loyal warriors. Even after peace was established in the 17th century, samurai proudly wore their swords as a sign of their rank.
To become a samurai, a boy must serve a samurai since a young age until he is about 15. He also trained in samurai fighting techniques such as sword fighting, archery & martial arts. Small Samurai began practising the basics of fencing with wooden swords at the age of 3, being given a real weapon, a mamorigatana sword for self-defence, between the ages of 5 and 7. A child had to be able to protect itself from surrounding dangers, family enemies, robbers and vagrants, with his father and male relatives providing early combat training. Boys were sent to be raised by relatives or to the home of a fencing instructor, where they were taught military tactics, archery, riding, handling a spear and unarmed combat, jujutsu, i.e. yawara. Attention was also paid to the development of intellectual virtues. When the boy becomes a samurai, he trains to always be alert & ready to fight for his master. A samurai's education in war included mental training. Samurai had to learn self-control so they could overcome emotions that might interfere with fighting, especially the fear of death. To learn how to endure pain & suffering, young samurai went for days without food, marched barefoot in snow on long journeys & held stiff postures for hours without complaining. To overcome the fear of death, they were told to think of themselves as already dead. Here is what some samurai are told: Meditation on inevitable death should be performed daily. "Every day when one's body & mind are at peace, one should meditate upon being ripped apart by arrows, rifles, spears & swords, being carried away by surging waves, being thrown into the midst of a great fire, falling from thousand-foot cliffs, dying of disease or committing seppuku [suicide] at the death of one's master." Samurai could never relax. An attack could come when it was least expected, even when a samurai was playing music or dancing. For this reason, samurai had to develop a "sixth sense" about danger. This came from long & grueling training. The experience of one young samurai illustrates this kind of training. The young man's fencing master used to whack him with a wooden sword throughout the day whenever he least expected it. These painful blows eventually taught the young man to always stay alert. Also, the samurai had to follow a unwritten code called bushido. Bushido was similar to chivalry of the European knights, the samurai had to respect his master & protect those who are weaker than him. Some other values of the samurai were loyalty & personal honor. Also, samurai followed Zen Buddhism/Buddhism, which you will read more about later in this presentation. Seppuku was ritual suicide, which if a samurai lost his master or honor, he could "redeem his honor" by committing seppuku. To commit seppuku, you stab yourself with a knife, then you slice yourself horizantally in half.
By the more peaceful 17th century, samurai were expected to be students of literature as well as fierce warriors. Two important aspects of culture were writing & literature. Samurai practiced calligraphy, the art of beautiful writing. Samurai also wrote poetry. One famous samurai poet was Matuso Basho. He invented a new form of short poetry that was later called haiku. A haiku has 3 lines of 5, 7 & 5 syllables, making 17 syllables in all. A haiku poet uses images to suggest an idea or create a mood. Another aspect of culture the samurai studied was the tea ceremony. The tea ceremony fostered a spirit of harmony, reverence & calm. It also served as an important way to form political alliances between samurai. Each step of the ceremony had to be performed a certain way. A tea master invited guests inside a small room. They entered through a doorway so small they have to crawl through. The tearoom was very simple. The only decorations were a scroll painting or an artistic arrangement of flowers. Guests sat silently, watching the master make & serve the tea. Then they engaged in sophisticated discussions as they admired the untnesils & the beautiful way the master had combined them. Each guest in turn took the bowl of tea, bowed to the others, took 3 sips of tea, wiped the rim with a tissue. Then he passes the bowl back to the master to prepare tea for the next guest.
Most samurai were Buddhists. 2 forms of Buddhism that became popular in Japan were Amida & Zen. Samurai were drawn to both types of Buddhism, but especially Zen. In the 12th century, a monk named Honen founded a popular form of Amida Buddhism. These Buddhists believed that everyone could reach paradise. Honey thaught that believers could reach paradise by relying on the mercy of Amida Buddha. Amida had been an Indian prince. When he became a Buddha, it is said that he set up a western paradise called the Pure Land. Another form of Buddhism, Zen, appealed to many samurai because of its emphasis on effort & discipline. Unlike Amida, Zen stressed self-reliance & achieving enlightenment through meditation. To reach enlightenment, Zen Buddhists meditated for hours, sitting cross-legged & erect without moving. According to Zen Buddhism, becoming enlightened required giving up everyday logic thinking. To jolt his mind into enlightenment, masters posed puzzling questions called koans. Probably the most famous koan is, "what is the sound of 1 hand clapping?" Zen masters created gardens to aid meditation. These artfully arranged gardens were simple & stark. They symbolized nature instead of imitating it. Rocks in sand, for example might represent islands in the sea. Zen Buddhism was a good match for the samurai way of life. Zen helped samurai learn discipline, focus their minds & overcome their fear of death.
The position of women in samurai society declined over time. In the 12th century, women in the warrior class enjoyed honor & respect. In the 17t century, women were treated as inferior to their husbands. In the 12th century, a samurai's wife helped manage the household & promote the family's interests. When her husband died, she could inherit his property & perform the duties of a vassal. Though women rarely fought, they were expected to be as loyal & bravery as men. As the warrior culture developed, the women's position weakened. By the 17th century, samurai men were the unquestioned lords of their households. According to one saying, when young, women should obey their fathers; when grown, their husbands; and when old, their sons. Girls did not even choose their own husbands. Instead, families arranged marriages for their daughters to increase their position & wealth. Wives were expected to bear sons & look after their husbands. Sometimes, they were even expected to kill themselves if their husbands died. During the day, they must weave, sew, spin, and take care of their households. They must stick to simple food & clothes & stay away from plays, singing & other entertainment. Not all Japanese women were treated the same way. Peasant women had some respect & independence because they worked alongside their husbands. But in samurai families, women were completeky under men's control.