Samurai: living for the bushido

Samurai Statue

deviantart / thedudewithstuff

When one thinks of historical Japan, the very first thing that comes to mind is samurai. Who exactly were they and what kind of life did a member of the samurai class lead??

The origin of the Samurai

In Japanese, the samurai were first usually referred to as Bushi or Buke (warrior) refers to, the word samurai comes from the word saburau ("serving a nobleman in a high position"), which is why the term samurai developed relatively late as opposed to the more common Saburai interspersed. They formed the warrior caste in historical Japan, which existed in this form around the 7th century. Century arose and even to a noble class, the sword nobility, became. In their heyday, about 10% of Japanese belonged to the samurai class!

The appearance of the sword nobility

Three samurai in armor

What did samurai look like? Even if the word warrior makes you think of big men: the Japanese were rather small at that time. The average height was between 1.60 and 1.65 m. Beards were usually popular, especially mustaches were considered a sign of masculinity and made an impressive sight for the other Japanese, whose beard growth was usually rather sparse. At some times, on the other hand, the fashion was more inclined to shaved men.

Samurai and their hair

An emblem of samurai, though not exclusive to them, was the topknot, in which the hair was tied at the top of the back of the head. Usually the hair was shaved in the middle of the head from the forehead to the topknot in a wide strip; this tradition probably arose because it increased the comfort when wearing a helmet. In pop culture, such as in manga and anime, the absence of this shave on a samurai is a sign that he is a Ronin is, therefore, a samurai without a lord; because of the necessity of a lord to achieve the absolute goal of life for samurai, a status comparable to that of a tramp.

The Samurai Armor

The clothing of a samurai was typically the kimono (for the men in muted colors so as not to be considered effeminate and vain, for their wives more fancy, depending on the social status of their husband). In order to move more easily, or for protection in cold and bad weather, such as when traveling, the samurai wore two-piece garments called kamishimo, over his kimono, consisting of Hakama (wide pants) and either Kataginu (sleeveless jacket with often conspicuous shoulders) or Haori (jacket with wide sleeves).

The status of samurai

Samurai were highly educated and trained. Sons were often sent to Buddhist monasteries for a few years, where they were instructed by monks in various subjects, including reading and writing, poetry, history, mathematics, meditation, and martial arts. Not least because of this, the samurai were responsible for the emergence of many areas of Japanese culture, whose origins lie in China, such as calligraphy, tea ceremony, various drawing techniques, poetry and the art of shaping rock gardens. All these disciplines were considered praiseworthy pastimes even in adulthood.

Katana in museum

Samurai were allowed to carry weapons openly even in the city because of their status. Sign of their rank was especially their pair of swords. The better known of the two swords, the katana, was a Japanese long sword, it was accompanied by a short sword, the Daisho, which only samurai were allowed to carry. By the way, a samurai was allowed to use these swords with impunity against the lowest social classes … besides swords, samurai also practiced fighting with the most diverse types of weapons, such as the bow, spears and many others.

flickr / ewan.osullivan

flickr / ewan.osullivan

Once you have seen the full armor of a samurai, you will never forget it. While at first it consisted of many connected small scales made of leather or iron, more robust protection was needed from the introduction of firearms, whereupon plate armor made of iron was used. The most striking feature of these suits of armor is their helmet (Kabuto), which has an extensive neck guard and is characterized by elaborate decorations with family crests, floral motifs or even horns, and the face mask (Mengu or Mempo), which is meant to both protect and intimidate opponents and can feature angry grimaces, mustaches and bared teeth because of it.

Life as a samurai

The samurai lived by a strict code of honor, the Bushido. This "way of the warrior" describes it as the highest duty of the samurai to be just and brave, even in the face of death, but above all to be self-sacrificing and loyal to the liege lord. This loyalty is irrevocable, even if it means dying for the Lord. Bringing disgrace to one’s own name and thus to that of the lord is terrible, and can lead to disgrace even for generations to come.

Therefore belonged to the Bushido also the ritual suicide, Seppuku, which was often granted to warriors as an alternative to execution in order to restore the honor of the family; Seppuku demanded courage, loyalty and self-sacrifice, the great virtues of the Bushido. After a meditative preparation, the samurai killed himself by ideally precisely executed cuts in the abdomen; an assistant stood by to decapitate him if he could not continue these cuts. Samurai women also knew ritual suicide, known to them as Jigai designated and, faster and less painful than the men, executed with a knife to the neck.

The role of women at that time

Samurai wives also had to be able to bring honor to the family. Marriages were arranged at that time, mainly through a middleman who ideally had a higher rank than the groom, often a superior or a family friend. Arrangements were made with the bride’s parents, the couple themselves hardly spoke to each other before the wedding. A wife should ideally be sacrificial, modest, obedient to the husband and loyal. Their duties were mainly the supervision of the household and the education of the children, but often also the instruction of the servants and, in dangerous situations, even the defense of the house and the children. That is why girls were not seldom trained in the Naginata, a pole weapon, or taught with special knives. Submissive to one’s husband, but otherwise not exactly defenseless! There were even – although especially in later times rather rare – female samurai! These were Onna-bugeisha called and usually fought with Naginata.

There were even western, i.e. European, samurai! This honorary title was awarded by the shogun very rarely and only on very special occasions. The story from "The last Samurai" is nevertheless only fiction!

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