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The Role of Bushido in Samurai Culture

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One may have heard the word samurai, one thinks of a skillful warrior dressed in heavy armour and fighting their battles with the famous Katana or possibly the ultimate battle of skill between the samurai and his brother-in-arms the ninja or simply the warrior one meets in mass-media. The above-mentioned associations may be true, but one rarely thinks of how this honoured expert of warfare originated and how his legacy has impacted not only Japan but continue to intrigue the West do to his code of conduct called Bushido. These are the points of issue this piece of writing sets out to investigate.

The honourable warrior one encounters in mass-media, both written and visual, is not actually the truth. Prior to the Heian period (794-1185), Japan’s military model, like many other aspects of Japanese society and policy, was heavily inspired by the Chinese which meant that able-bodied men were required to enlist in the army. The forced enlistment meant that these men had to fight with whatever weapon they could come across. At this point in time they have yet to be called samurai, but rather a term which is more akin to that of defender. Back then, servicemen did not always wish to return home but rather choose to settle in an environment which may have offered them a bit more substance. Their settlements were often placed strategically between the battlefront and their place of residence. In the early Heian period, the Emperor had a hunger for expanding his rule into the Honshu province, but this proved difficult because his soldier’s skill and loyalty were slowly dwindling. To combat this issue, the Emperor instead enlisted the help of reginal clans. Later, one saw the Emperor’s army being dismantled and the powerful clans gained more political influence. The increase of the clan’s political influence came about because of the raising taxes imposed on farmers which forced said farmers to leave their land and search for new land to cultivate. The farmers search for new land to cultivate was answered by the reginal clans and they even offered lower taxes and the perk of not being forced to join the army. This reality certainly did not appease the magistrate in Kyoto and it also led to a growing need for the clans to hire able-bodied men to protect themselves and their land. And, thus the samurai was born. But before he could be conceived, the regional clans needed to realise that they needed to perfect their martial arts skills. These men were called the saburau, over time, this evolved into the term we today know as samurai. Originally, the term samurai was used as a derogatory term within the imperial court to mock and point out that these men are mere servants. They may have come from humble backgrounds, but they have honed their skills and dedicated their lives to fighting and dying on the battlefield. In the mid to late Heian period, the regional clans were ruled by chiefs, these chiefs were often a distant relative of the Emperor. These ‘rulers’ were supposed to return when their term ended but many decided to stay and pass on their role to their sons. This was the trial version of what would later become known as daimyo. Slowly, the samurais began brushing shoulders with the gentry though arranged marriage and brutal intimidation tactics. 

In 1185 a new government, bakufu, was founded by the Minamoto family in Kamakura, south of modern Tôkyô. In 1192 Minamoto Yoritomo was given the title ‘shôgun’ to signify his military control over the country.’ From the onset of the Kamakura period (1185-1333) to the late Takugawa (Edo) period (1600-1867). In short, from the Kamakura period onwards the samurai had evolved from a group of hired outlaws who protected the daimyo to highly skilled warriors who controlled the Emperor and thus Japan through a military dictatorship. During the Ashikaga period (1336-1568), the skills, the tactics and some say even the spirit of the samurai took a turn because the Portuguese introduced the gun and thus western warfare. On top of this, the samurai was challenges by the warrior of the shadow and his fellow serviceman the ninja. In the onset of the Edo period one saw huge numbers of samurai were left without a Han and thus no daimyo. Samurais without a daimyo to were known as ronin. During this era, the samurai role changes from warrior to that of a government administrator or an aristocrat. This shift from warrior to aristocrats means that they end up becoming those who in their early days mocked them. By the late Edo period, the indecisiveness and unlike samurai behaviour displayed by the shogun and the bakufu led to the slogan Sonno joi which recognised the emperor as the true ruler of Japan and desired his reinstatement. The crucial year of 1854 saw the samurai regain their lost belief in the power of the sword which lead to sword production flourishing, and martial arts saw a renaissance. In the late Azuchi-Momoyama period (1568-1600), more specifically 1588, one saw the samurai being honoured by being allowed to carry a sword exclusively which led to the samurai gaining the affectionate name ‘two-sword man.’ This affectionate name came about because some samurais wearing both a small and larger sword, this combination was a sign of prestige. From the Meiji period (1867-1912) and onwards the samurai was significant no more which meant that he was reduced to a mere tourist attraction, a reminder of a better time, and simply a revenue source for the Japanese.

When Japan started her journey to discover herself was at a time where Western colonial powers were at the absolute height. Do to the state the world was in Japanese leaders faced many a difficult decision when establishing ‘the Land of the rising son’ as the ‘great nation’ which westerners are fascinated with in present day. In her search for muse, both globally and domestic, it quickly became clear that she needed to modernise, industrialise, militarise and most colonise in order to survive in an arena where she may need to clash with imperial giants such as Britain. In order to support this plan of modernisation they needed a population which was ‘loyal obedient and willing to make many sacrifices for the good of the nation.’ (Narroway 2008) And, the elite created the samurai in order ‘to promote and empower the people.’ On another note, when discussing his importance for the creation of Japan self-image context is clue or as Miss Lisa Narroway explains:

In order to demonstrate the significance of the samurai symbol, it is necessary to place the creation and promotion of the samurai symbol into the wider context of modern Japan. During this period, nationalism was articulated as a state-led ideology, requiring the population to conform exclusively to ‘official’ ideas regarding national identity. Such ideas emphasised national uniqueness and strength, incorporating notions such as the ‘family nation’ and a mission in Asia into the overall official vision. Through promoting such ideas as part of its ideology, the Japanese state aimed to unify, indoctrinate and to mobilise the national population. 

When it comes to the creation of this honourable warrior, the state elite wanted a figure steeped in history and had a code of conduct resembling that of the ancient night of Europe, thus Bushido was born. And, of this code of conduct a scholar by the name of Nukariya Kaiten writes:

Bushido, or the code of chivalry, should be observed not only by the soldier in the battlefield, but by every citizen in the struggle for existence. If a person be a person and not a beast, then he must be a samurai-brave, generous, upright, faithful and mainly full of self-respect and self-confidence, at the same time full of the spirit of self-sacrifice. 

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