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The samurai of Japan. History, position in society and worldview

Table of Contents


1. Prehistory
1.1. The beginnings of the Japanese people
1.2. The Japanese Empire up to the 9th century.

2. The samurai enters the story stage
2.1. The Rise of the Military Aristocracy in the Heian Period
2.2. Who are the samurai now?

3. Zen Buddhism
3.1. Zen Buddhism in Japan
3.2. The influence of Zen Buddhism on the samurai

4. The samurai
4.1. The sword of the samurai
4.2. The armor of the samurai

5. The rise of the warrior class in the 17th century

6. The ideology of the samurai
6.1. Neo-Confucianism
6.2. Bushidô - the way of the samurai
6.3. The ideal warrior

7. Appendix
7.1. Map - Japan
7.2. Timeline
7.3. glossary



When I decided on this topic, I did not yet know about its vastness. But I soon realized that I had to restrict myself drastically. So I came away from my original choice, "the samurai and its influence on the mentality of today's Japan". This was mainly because I wanted to write a text that would remain legible and understandable for a layperson.

The present work deals on the one hand with an introduction to the history of Japan and on the other hand with the questions of who a samurai was, what position he occupied in society and how he came to his worldview.

The work also has an appendix to, I hope, answer any questions that may arise.

I hope you enjoy reading

1. Prehistory

1. 1. The beginnings of the Japanese people

The exact origin of the samurai, like that of the Japanese people in general, is very obscure. In ancient times, Japan could have been settled by waves of immigrants from the islands of the southwestern Pacific, such as the Asian continent. There are no historical reports of such peoples' movements, but Japanese folklore - a creative mythology that received the rank of national belief in the 1930s - says that the country was founded by certain goddesses of the heavens. After some time, the sun goddess sent her grandson to a mountain peak in Kyushu with the task of ruling the divinely created "central land of the reed plains". His great-grandson (Jimmu Tennô - the first Emperor of Japan), after years of struggle, advanced eastward along the shores of the Inland Sea to the Yamato region, south of what is now Kyoto, and founded the first Japanese empire, the Yamato Empire, there.

1. 2. The Japanese Empire up to the 9th century

Until the 9th century Japan ruled the Tennô, "the son of heaven", thanks to his direct descent from Jimmu Tennô, unrestricted. It should be noted that as early as the 7th century, child emperors were lifted to the throne by various noble families in order to increase their influence. From the 9th century and the collapse of his military guard, the emperor became more and more powerless, until in the 16th century he was only of religious importance.

There was no unified capital in Japan until the establishment of Heianko (Kyoto) in the 8th century. The city in which the emperor was staying was treated as the capital.

2. The samurai enters the story stage

2. 1. The Rise of the Military Aristocracy in the Heian Period (9th to 11th Centuries)

Between the 9th and 11th centuries, when the Kaiser Hof experienced a period of relative calm and cultural bloom, the provinces began to rebel. Hardly anyone wanted to leave the capital to take an administrative post in the province. In both public and private affairs, people relied on middlemen and representatives.

In the 11th century, the network of provincial governors appointed by the central government had largely collapsed. Many nobles who did not want to swap the comfortable capital for a job in the country sold their jobs to a deputy. He was ready to live there, but wanted to enrich himself as personally as possible. The best way to do this was by diverting public tax revenue or tacitly granting more shõ en (private land ownership · Glossary) within its territory.

Rural life offered the governors and deputies some sort of compensation. The ritsuryõ -Code (Legal Basis for Central Government · Glossary) would have required them to return to the capital every four years and report back, but they knew how to reinstate them and settled in the province for a long time.

Of course, this entrenchment meant a loss of public finances, and the reports from the provinces did not always correspond to the facts. In order to strengthen their position, the provincial governors often allied themselves with the local military.

Emperors, nobles, Buddhist monasteries and large families built their own military units to secure peace and enforce their interests, because there were more and more bands of robbers who made the provinces unsafe. The demise of a central military organization that could have maintained the peace and the need to shõ en and to protect local interests, encouraged the formation of local militia associations (Bushido · Glossary).

After the collapse of the ritsuriõ System, the so-called "armed families" became even more important. But it was expensive to equip such units; swords and armor, bows and arrows, horses, grooms, stables and fodder were required. Only the local elite could pay for this, which over the centuries developed into a new power factor.

The military units were initially small and they fought one another, so that they posed no real threat to the central authority of the court. From the middle of the 10th century, however, it became apparent that large associations, under charismatic leaders, brought entire regions under their control. The court could only master them by asking for help from rival troops. The particularly influential associations were Fujiwara, Taira and Minamoto (· Glossary).

Under the leadership of these warrior families with aristocratic origins, a sophisticated technique of mounted combat, the "way of bow and horse", a fighting tradition that gave rise to the "way of the samurai" under Confucian influence in the 17th century. The intense personal bond between master and follower came in the terms hõ kõ"Service" and goon"Favor" expressed. For the favor of his master, which was specifically shown in the share of booty or the confirmation of his land ownership, the henchman had to provide consideration in the form of war and guard duty, gifts, corvee labor or tax payments. Before the 17th century, however, the exhortations to loyalty were mostly purely rhetorical, because in this unstable time the warriors with this alliance pursued private or family interests at the same time; often it was simply a question of survival. Follow-up and selfless allegiance were balanced.

2. 2. Who are the samurai now?

The military elite that shaped Japanese society from the 12th to the 19th century were commonly called bushi or samura i. Bushi means "fighting men" and is the general term for the warriors of the medieval era. Most of them lived in villages and administered their lands while practicing the arts of war and being ready for use on the battlefield. Some of these provincial- Warriors were vassals (gokenin, literally: "house people") des Shõ gun (Landowners; e.g. nobles, monasteries). Initially, the term " samurai"The armed service of a vassal. After the 16th century it was generally used for the warriors who moved from the country to the castle towns and lived there as permanently paid vassals in the "Path of the Samurai" or Bushido Established with virtues such as loyal service or family honor. In the extreme case, loyalty expressed itself in the willingness to stand up for his master in the gruesome ritual of seppuku (nice expression for harakiri · Glossary) to sacrifice.

3. Zen Buddhism

3. 1. Zen Buddhism in Japan

Zen, a religious practice aimed at attaining personal enlightenment through meditation, was introduced in Japan before the Middle Ages. Intensive meditation has always been an essential part of the religious practice of almost all Buddhist schools. Nonetheless, Zen Buddhism did not gain acceptance as an independent school that mandated seated meditation until the late 12th and 13th centuries. Zen gives the highest priority to intuition, while it rejects the exercise of the rational and formulated intellect. The warrior's mind is usually little drawn to metaphysical speculation or philosophical debate; and these are also avoided by the disciples of Zen. Because Zen shows its power in doing, its power and its flavor are diminished as soon as an element of explanation or analysis appears. As with cycling, which sounds so difficult in theory that it seems almost impossible, it is with Zen.

3. 2. The influence of Zen Buddhism on the samurai

The influence of Zen on the samurai was dramatic. He added an entirely new posture to the use of the bow and sword. It may not have been a coincidence that the rise of Zen Buddhism in the late 12th and 13th centuries coincided with the rise in power of a warrior class who felt the need for a religious rite appropriate to them.

The samurai could be an outright iconoclast when dealing with most Buddhist sects and beliefs. He who Jodo Despised (the belief of the common people in the "Pure Land"), recognized in the Zen masters men whose minds were straightforward, hard and pure. Under the umbrella of Buddhism, a belief had grown here that did not make demands on the intellect or to the feelings, but to the will or - to use another expression - to the moral character, the true root and the true hold of warrior pride. Even the most pragmatic and skeptical could see that appropriation of the Zen spirit greater self-discipline and strengthening that great confident validity against death, and this was what every samurai was expected to show.

4. the samurai

4. 1. The sword of the samurai

The manufacture and handling of the sword of the warriors show the forces of this trinity at work. Accompanied by religious solemnity, the master of the blacksmith's workshop cleaned himself every day with ritual ablutions. He and his assistants heated and hammered, shut off from the world, until the blade was finished; the process could take many weeks.

In the possession of the samurai, the sword had to promote the service that its bearer owed the superior. This commitment to loyalty was underpinned by the Confucian Code of Morals. The sword should never be drawn outside of this context. But once drawn, it was handled in the spirit of Zen, the sure, most powerful guide to proper use.

Because it was above all the art of fencing that was considered to be the most important manifestation of Zen. The two swords, the long and the short, both tucked into the belt with the edge up, were the samurai's most valued material possessions; they were badges of status and symbols of his honor as a warrior. In all respects the sword was the samurai's soul, the Most High.

The sword cult is a great, unique phenomenon in Japanese history and folklore. The samurai's sword had an extremely sharp blade that is probably not produced anywhere else in the world. It is valued as a work of art, as a talisman, as a fetish in a unique way.

A well-known tale may make this clear: Murasama, an excellent swordsmith who was not strong in character, enjoyed a rather sinister reputation, as his outstanding blades always involved their owners in bloody arguments with others and ultimately also brought harm to the bearers themselves. A man who wanted to test the character of a Murasama sword held it in a river to see how it would react to the dead leaves drifting in the current. Every leaf that touched the sword was neatly cut in half. Then he held a sword made by the greatest of all swordsmiths, Masamune, into the river. The leaves avoided the blade. This is how Masamune's own noble character showed itself. "The sword of Murasama is terrible, that of Masamune is human," they said. In other words, a good sword could take on the personality of its smith. So to a certain extent it had an occult life of its own.

The "spiritual" properties of a sword were equivalent to its status as a work of art. The slightly curved shape, a kind of intermediate piece between the straight blade of the European knight and the scimitar of the Saracens, gives the samurai's weapon a unique grace. Decor called "Blade Figures", an irregular pattern of great beauty, reminiscent of the waves of the sea or the peaks of the mountains, formed during forging from the various materials used in the process of heating and hardening. The handle, scabbard and guard plate often show comparable beauty and are usually adorned with patterns taken from nature and depicting flowers and birds.

4.2. The armor of the samurai

The armor from helmet to greave was aesthetically no less pleasing. The most striking is probably that kabuto, the helmet. If it is horned or has antlers, it looks threatening and bizarre; it is distinctive that the generic name for beetles in Japanese kabuto-mushi (Helmet insect) is. The samurai's armor shows a strong sense of color and practicality, such as protection and weight. All armor has colored trims. There is scarlet, white armor or armor with silk braids in the color of "yellowed leaves" or cherry blossom.

To a complete armor one counted at least 23 parts, from fundoshi (Loincloth) until yari ate (Spear support). But the term was often used to describe full armor roku gu (six pieces): helmet, mask, body armor, thigh pieces, fencing gloves and leg guards.

5. The rise of the warrior class in the 17th century

During the Tokugawa Shogunate (a form of government dominated by landowners) a class system developed in Japan, which not only separated the court nobility from the rest of the people, but also took care of the special position of the samurai within society.

One in the province Shõ guns the castle town was the headquarters and the samurai of the area lived in and around the castle. Craftsmen and merchants lived in the town in front of the castle.

The fishermen and farmers settled in the countryside around the city. These first producers were essentially self-administered, provided that they paid their taxes, did their labor and kept peace. The Tokugawa Shogunate was built on the solid foundations of self-governing village communities made up of "well-disciplined peasants."

The "well-disciplined peasants" were in second place in the hierarchy of the four classes, which in descending order of official importance included the samurai, peasants, artisans and merchants Kyoto (including the members of the imperial family, of course), the priesthood and the doctors were outside this class structure. Also actors, courtesans and the members of the Eta, the caste of the outcasts. In a total population that may have been about 30 million by the late 17th century, the samurai numbered less than 2 million. In theory, the class barriers were rigid. In practice, however, there was quite a bit of flexibility between the three lower classes. But between these and the Samurai Order, in all its degrees, there were usually, if not always, insurmountable obstacles. The saying: "A horse goes with a horse, an ox with an ox."

If people of the lower classes violated the distance to a samurai, or if a samurai of lower rank was delinquent to an immediate vassal, there was no objection to knocking such people down. It was called kirisute goemen or the right to "strike down and go." As warriors of all degrees had this right, from Daimyo (Lord of a province) to the rudest foot soldier, it strengthened their respect among the common people and perpetuated their social and political subordination.

6. The ideology of the samurai

6. 1, Neo-Confucianism

Fear alone, albeit a factor not to be underestimated, could not have sustained the reputation of the samurai caste during the 264 years of the Tokugawa period. The real basis of that prestige was the monopoly of the warriors' moral, political, and intellectual authority, an authority based in large part on Neo-Confucianism.

Confucianism had always influenced the shaping of the moral code of the samurai caste. But it was not until the Tokugawa period that this philosophy became the officially recognized foundation of government and generally accepted guideline for all social behavior. There were several schools of Confucian thought. The most influential in Japan was that of Neo-Confucianism, the Chinese philosopher Chu Hsi (1130-1200 AD). The aim of Bakufu (name of the government formed by landowners) was to stamp out all rebellious thoughts of low-ranking warriors against their masters and to counter the otherworldly nature of Buddhism and the teachings of Christianity.

The basis of all Confucian schools were the analects of Confucius. A list of the approved attitudes and behavior patterns from that classic has been drawn up as follows:

1. Devotion to authority - parents, elders, superiors

2. Devotion to customs and norms

3. Adoration of the past and respect for history

4. Love of traditional knowledge

5. Respect for the power of example

6. Precedence of broad moral education over specialist knowledge

7. Prefer non-violent moral reform in state and society

8. Wisdom, caution, preferring a middle ground

9. Rejection of the competition

10. Courage and a sense of responsibility for a great tradition

11. Self-respect (with permitted self-pity) in times of need

12. Exclusivity and accuracy for moral and cultural reasons

13. Pedantic accuracy in treating others

It must be noted here, however, that in Tokugawa Japan, loyalty to the Lord was more important than to one's parents; a reversal of Chinese priorities.

6. 2. bushidô - The way of the samurai

The additional dimension, which complemented the teachings of Neo-Confucianism and ultimately almost overshadowed them, was the belief in a specifically Japanese "way of the samurai", for which Bushido is a translation. A number of scholars and teachers gained fame as interpreters of this term. In the long run, however, no one was more influential - so that he was almost the inventor of the Bushido could name - as Yamaga Soko (1622 - 1685) a teacher, who of the many schools of Confzuianism of the true or ancient doctrine (kô gaku) followed. Around 1665 a collection of lectures Yamaga had given was published under the title Shidô, "The Way of the Warrior." Over time, this book became one of the most influential of all moral guides on samurai behavior.

“The samurai's business is to reflect on his own station in life, to render faithful service to his master, if he has one, to deepen his attachment to friends, and above all, with due regard to his own position, to duty himself to dedicate. However, one inevitably becomes involved in one's own life with obligations between father and child, older and younger brother, and husband and wife. Even if these are the basic moral obligations of everyone in the country, the peasants, artisans and merchants do not have the necessary leisure in their work, and therefore they cannot always act in accordance with these norms and cannot fully serve as an example for the journey . The samurai gets by without the business of the farmer, craftsman and merchant and limits himself to practicing this way; should there be one in the three classes of the common people who violates these moral principles, the samurai punishes him quickly and thus upholds the moral principles of the country. It is not enough for the samurai to know the martial and civil virtues without practicing them. Since this is so, he is outwardly in constant readiness for the call to service, and inwardly he strives for it, the way of the master and subjects, of friend and friend, of father and son, of older and younger brother, of husband and the wife to meet. In his heart he keeps the way of peace, but outwardly he keeps his weapons ready for use. The three classes of the common people make him their teacher and respect him. By following his teachings, they can understand what is essential and what is secondary.

Herein lies the samurai's way, the means by which he earns food, clothing and shelter, by which his heart is calm; and he is able in the long run to repay his obligations to his Lord and the kindness of his parents. " Shidô, the "way of the warrior")

Nothing can be more deeply imbued with the Confucian spirit, and such admonitions sharply illuminate the moral climate in which the Tokugawa samurai lives and which sustains him. Note the primary relationship between master and subject and the warning that the samurai should reflect on his own station in life; this is part of the "samurai's business".

6. 3. The ideal warrior

It cannot be stressed enough that for the ideal warrior, the way of the samurai was a way of death. It was of the utmost importance that the manner of death should not bear marks of dishonor. So it was considered ominous to go into a fight with the slightest thought of possible death or injury. Of course, this is healthy psychology that can be verified through personal experience. A warning that Usugi Kenshin, one of the great leaders of the 16th century, sent to his followers: “Go to the battlefield with confidence in victory and you will return home without any wounds. Be fully resolved to strive in battle and you will live; wishes to survive in battle and you will surely find death. If you leave the house, determined not to see it again, you will return safely; if you waste a thought on returning, you will not return. "

7. Appendix

7. 1. Map - Japan







7. 2. Timeline

Figure not included in this excerpt

7. 3. Glossary

Bushi: Warrior / Samurai

Bushido: "Way of the warrior"; the code developed especially in the 17th century.

Daimyo: Literally "big name"; lord of a province, at certain times an almost independent monarch.

Fujiwara: Influential warrior family in the Heian period

Giri: Mandatory; Obligation to a superior (e.g. the Lord or teacher); at the samurai had giri Priority over all human feelings.

Hara - kiri: Literally "slashing the stomach"; the suicide revered by the samurai caste. Minamoto: Influential warrior family in the Heian period.

Ninjo: Human feeling; Pity, goodness. According to the samurai code, feelings must take second place after the call of duty.

ritsuriõ: Civil and criminal code that provides the legal basis for a

Central administration based on the Chinese model as it was introduced in Japan between the 7th and 8th centuries.

Seppuku: More polite term for harakiri

shõ en: Private land owned by noblemen and monasteries during the Heian and Kamakura periods.

Taira: Warrior family who controlled the court in the 12th century. Tenno: The emperor; "Son of Heaven"


- Martin Collcutt - ,, World Atlas of Ancient Cultures - Japan "

- Kuno Mauer - "The Samurai - Their History and Their Influence on Modern Japan"

- Richard Storry - ,, The Samurai - The Knights of the Far East "