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Prior to the development and establishment of feudalism in Medieval Europe and Japan from 600 – 1450 CE, both civilizations were fragmented. The collapse of the Roman Empire left Europe open to invaders from all fronts, and Japan had long been a land of clans. There was much in common between the two feudal systems, including their stabilizing effects and the similar hierarchal structures. However, many aspects of the militaristic part of feudalism, specifically knights and samurai, were in stark contrast to one another.
The Roman Empire had ruled over Europe for hundreds of years before its collapse, and it served as a powerful and central government. It had a large and powerful military, which warded off invaders. After the collapse, invaders such as the Huns and the Goths seized the opportunity to try and take over lands that were divided amongst themselves, unsure of what to do. The implementation of the feudal system created one ruler, a monarch, that would rule over the citizens through a chain of command. The peasants would work in a manor, supporting the one who owns the manor, who supported the monarch and those who helped protect the manor. Japan, on the other hand, had a long history of being independent clans. With the establishment of a feudal system, they had some form of a central government. With a shogun overseeing the civilization, they could work together and focus on advancing as a whole instead of trying to conquer more land.
Even though the structures of the Japanese and European feudal systems appear to be the same, there are some small but key differences between them. At the top of the European system sat the monarch, which meant the king or the queen. As for the Japanese system, on paper, their monarch, the emperor, was also on top. In actuality, the emperor was at the top only for show, as he was believed to have divine attributes. The true leader was the shogun, who was put at the top by the samurai. Underneath the monarchs were nobles, which was pretty much the same between both civilizations. Underneath them were the knights and samurai, both of which I will discuss in the next paragraph. In Europe, underneath the knights were the peasants, who worked at the manors or did labor work. Merchants were thought of more highly than the common laborer. In Japan, we see the complete opposite. In fact, the divide between the two wasn’t blurred as in Europe but made very clear. The Japanese believed that the laborers were better than the merchant because while the laborer spent grueling hours to produce a profit, the merchant simply took somebody else’s work and sold it.
There is much to be said about the differences between the knights and samurai in the feudalistic eras. They both served the same general purpose; to protect the people from outside threats. However, the ethics and morals of the two were very, very different from each other. In Europe, knights were just that – knights. Many times, they weren’t literate or mannerly, but just strong and adventurous. In Japan, samurai didn’t only have strength, but they had to have other skills to earn their title. It was common for a samurai to be literate and trained in fine arts. Knights served their employers though contracts. If a contract were to expire with one lord, it wasn’t unusual to see that knight be bought by a rival who is paying a higher price. They functioned just as mercenaries, working for the highest bidder. Samurai, on the other hand, felt this obligation to help those who were in charge not because they were legally bound to do so but because it was what they thought was the right thing to do. The major religions in both civilizations also had an effect on how the knights and samurai operated in battle. In Europe, the major religion was Christianity, which strictly forbid suicide. Knights would fight bravely, but they would retreat when needed. Samurai, on the other hand, had nothing in their religion that even condemned suicide. Samurai saw it as a disgrace if they lost a battle and were left alive, so much so that they would commit seppuku afterwards, the act of killing oneself by ripping out your guts with a sword. This led to a more committed but deadly army force, one that saw much more bloodshed than the Europeans.
Though both the system implemented in Japan and the system implemented in Europe between 600 and 1450 BC were named the same thing, they were most definitely not the same thing. It is undeniable, though, that they strongly resemble each other, and the results of the system were also mirrored, despite being thousands of miles away.
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