The Rise of a Military Society
In 1185, Minamoto Yoritomo came to power in Japan. However, he took the title of the shogun, or commander-in-chief instead of emperor. He set up a military government which lessened the role of the emperor, with the capital city of Kamakura. This new era continued for 700 years, when samurai, professional warriors, rose to Japan's ruling class. Eventually, Japan's society became medieval Europe's lord-vassal system with the help of warrior-lords called daimyos. The daimyos expected obedience and loyalty with protection, land, money, or administrative office from samurai, while the samurai expected the same from the daimyos they served.
Samurai Armor, Weapons, Training, and Combat
A samurai battled in heavy armor, featuring a robe called a kimono and baggy trousers, and shinguards made of leather or cloth. Samurai armor was unique, consisting of laced (with silk) rows of minute metal plates coated with lacquer, which was strong, but did not restrict a samurai's movements. Panels made of this armor covered a samurai's chest, back, shoulders, thighs, and hips. After dressing in the armor, the samurai put on an intimidating iron mask, which scared opponents as well as protected his face. Last came the helmet, which contained burned incense, so his head would smell sweet if it were cut off in battle.
Samurai battled with bows and arrows, spears, and swords. The samurai's wooden bow took great strength to use, and spears were used to knock riders off their horses and kill with one thrust. However, a samurai's most prized possession was his sword, called the katana, which were flexible, but also hard enough to be razor sharp. Into battle, samurai carried a katana to fight and a shorter sword to cut off heads.
Military Training and Combat
Extensive training was required to learn the skills of a samurai. The arts of archery and swordsmanship were taught with mental and physical techniques, which were very vigorous and demanding. Samurai also trained to fight in difficult conditions, such as losing a weapon by learning to use other objects as weapons, and martial arts. The samurai had a strange style of battle, according to ancient texts. Messengers first met to decide the time and place of combat. Then, the two armies faced each other a few hundred yards apart. Samurai on both sides shouted their names, ancestors, heroic deeds, and reasons for fighting, and only then did they charge, fighting in one-on-one duels when they found an opponent who matched him in rank. After the battle, the winning side cut off the dead opponents' heads, to prove to the daimyo that they had killed their foes.
The Warrior Code (Bushido and Other Values)
Bushido, "The Way of the Warrior," was the final form of the samurai code, developed in the 17 century. It governed a samurai's life. A samurai's supreme duty was to be extremely loyal. Samurai also guarded their personal honor. Bushido, in fact, was so important, that the price for not following it was seppuku, or ritual suicide. There were many reasons for seppuku, from preserving personal honor to avoiding capture in battle. Seppuku became a celebrated ceremony, despite the event of a death. Samurai prepared by taking a bath, unbinding his hair, and putting on white clothes, with invited guests watching. Then he was served his favorite foods on a tray, along with a sword, which he used to kill himself with, and a swordsman quickly cutting of his head to end the agony.
Training in Writing, Literature, and Tea Ceremony
Samurai were expected to be cultural students as well as aggressive warriors by the more peaceful 17 century. Samurai practiced calligraphy and poetry. Another aspect of studied Japanese culture was the tea ceremony. The tea ceremony served as an important way to form political alliances among samurai, and fostered a spirit of harmony, reverence, and calm. Every step of the ceremony had to be performed a specific way.
As most samurais were Buddhists, the rise of Zen and Amida Buddhism drew the attention of samurai.
A monk named Honen founded the popular form of Amida Buddhism in the 12 century. Amida Buddhists believed that all could reach paradise by relying on the mercy of the Amida Buddha.
Zen Buddhism's emphasis on effort and discipline appealed to many samurai. Zen stressed self-reliance and achieving enlightenment through demanding amounts of meditation, unlike Amida. Zen masters also created gardens designed to aid in meditation. Zen Buddhism was a good match for samurai, as it taught discipline, focus, and the denial of the fear of death.
Women in Samurai Society
Women were treated with honor, respect and considerable status in the 12 century. They helped manage the household, and could inherit the property of her dead husband. Women, although scarcely, took part in battles alongside men, and were expected to be as loyal and brave. However position declined over time, and eventually, in the 17 century, they were treated as inferior to their husbands.