Many years ago, in high school, I was a total otaku. I loved JRPGs, anime, and most of all samurai. I have always loved the idea of a lonely warrior who can match wits as well as blades. So, naturally I fell in love with anime such as the classic Ruroni Kenshin series, and when I heard that Hollywood was finally making a big budget samurai movie starring Tom Cruise I was very excited. I really liked The Last Samurai. But as I look back at the movie and my facilitation with samurai in general, I realize that everything that I believed about the samurai is wrong. So here are some common misconceptions and the facts about the real samurai.
Many people when they talk about samurai have the image that the samurai go back to the founding of Japan and that they have always been an elevated class in Japanese society. Many people hear about the SPAM hierarchy system; Samurai, Peasants, Artisans, Merchants. But they are wrong…partially.
Samurai have their beginnings in the Heian period (794-1185 CE). While this seems ancient to many, in the context of Japan this is far from ancient. In many ways, the samurai really became a class in the same time as European Knights, and we don’t consider them ancient. In the Heian period the “saburafu” (which means to serve), were basically hired bodyguards. A local lord would bring on some when he needed extra muscle for a trip or diplomatic mission.
Samurai as a class really only came about after the reunification of Japan under Toyotomi Hideyoshi (in the late 1500s). He instituted the SPAM system, in order to prevent rich land owners from hiring on their own armies. Basically he gave the higher class people in the country a choice, you can join this new class as “samurai” and basically be a public servant (that is dependent entirely on the government for support) but with more rights, or you can stay in the peasant class own your own land and make wealth from that, but with fewer rights. Many chose to be samurai, and many chose not to. This would prevent more insurrections from the bottom of society.
Everyone knows that true Samurai followed Bushido, the way of the warrior. It was a system similar to the European knight’s code of chivalry. It stressed loyalty, compassion, devotion to one’s leader, and that death was better than dishonor. Bushido would be the guiding light for the samurai throughout their lives, and the true samurai observed it as the meaning of his or her existence.
So tell me, what book has all theses rules of the samurai? Where is the Bushido bible? There isn’t one. There never was one. Yes, there are some works like the Hagakurei or Miyamoto Musashi’s Book of Five Rings, but these hardly make up a rule book for samurai. These are often observations of the more famous samurai. The idea of Bushido was not something that existed throughout most of Japanese or samurai history. If you had asked Musashi about Bushido he probably would have looked at you very confused (and perhaps cut your head off). The term Bushido probably only came into use in the last 100 or 150 years. And speaking of honor….
Anyone who knows anything about samurai knows that their sense of loyalty and honor knew no bounds. They would willingly die for the honor of their lord. They would even gladly take their own lives if their lords asked it of them, and they would die with a smile on their face. A true samurai would face an army alone if it meant even sparing their lord the least amount of difficulty or danger.
This is kind of a shocking one. Samurai were mercenaries. Yeah, they only “honored” those that paid them. If you gave me a pretty large stipend, I’d honor you too, and if there was another guy that wants to pay me more, well, he gets my honor then. Until the Tokugawa era, the samurai system worked something like this. I am a local lord or a peasant with a lot of land and money. My next door neighbor is causing some trouble. I have peasant farmers who I can arm and make them fight for me, but so does my neighbor. So I want some tough guys to help me bust up my neighbor’s stuff and get him to either leave me alone or give me his land. So I put up a job notice. A bunch of tough guys show up at my place to hear my offer. If they are happy with the payment, they work for me. Once we finish they can move on to another contract. Not exactly the image you had in your mind of the loyal samurai, huh?
Samurai could be, and often were, downright disloyal. It was not uncommon for samurai to show up to a lord’s call, take the money and then skip town, or even worse, secretly meet with the lord’s enemy and switch sides during battle. This is the reason that the stories of loyal and honorable samurai were so present because disloyalty was such a problem. Think about it, if all samurai were so loyal wouldn’t the stories of samurai bravely dying for their lords be so common no one would note them? The reasons these stories are so common is because they were hoping to make more samurai adhere to them.
The katana was the samurai’s ultimate weapon. A real samurai was proficient in sword fighting and was a one man army with his sword. Furthermore, the sword was part of a samurai’s soul. Only samurai were allowed to wear their sword as a mark of their office.
Samurai didn’t use swords in battle. Originally samurai were mounted archers. They fought like the Mongols in that they would ride and fire from a mounted position. But as the style of Japanese warfare continued to evolve, they morphed into heavy cavalry, and mostly used pikes or spears. Think about trying to fight from atop a horse, with a sword. It is a really bad idea.
Now the part about only samurai being allowed to carry swords is generally true, but that is only true after the Tokugawa shogunate came to power. Most of this idea of samurai and swords comes from this era. Why? Because there was no war. During times of peace, a mainly warrior caste has a lot of time for navel-gazing and writing treatises on their worth to the country at large. Think about it. In America today, we often debate having such a large military despite having no major enemies. Japan had the same debate during the Tokugawa shogunate. You had a large class of people who’s main reason for existing was to fight, but there was no one to fight. So the samurai had to justify their existence through myth-making, and practicing with the sword was one way of saying, “See, I’m totally ready to throw down if anybody messes with me!”
The myth of the samurai is mainly a myth, much of it is straight up lies. But that is not always a bad thing. I like to think of it this way: there is Truth and truth. Truth with a “lowercase t” is the facts, while Truth “with a capital T” is the lesson.
For example, in America, we have a saying about George Washington and a cherry tree. As a child, little George got a shiny new axe from his father and he promptly used it to cut down one of his father’s cherry trees. When his father confronted him about this, little George said, “Father, I can not tell a lie. I cut down that cherry tree.” His father was so impressed by his son’s honesty that he didn’t punish him. This story is entirely made up. But that does not make it a lie. It may not be the truth, but it tells a Truth. George Washington was an honorable and honest person.
I think it is the same for the samurai. Everything in The Last Samurai may not be true, but it tells a more important Truth. The ideals that many people in Japan, and the world for that matter, strive for. So in that sense, even the silliest and outlandish myths of the samurai are True.