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HISTORY CORNER: Code of the Samurai

by SYD ALBRIGHT
| January 31, 2021 1:10 AM

From the 12th century until 1872, the samurai were Japan’s military nobility, carrying their profession with honor and dignity. Then a 20-year-old emperor named Meiji brought it all to an end — except for Bushido: “the way of the warrior” code of honor.

“Samurai” means “to serve” — which they did for some 1,500 years — their stories and legends told endlessly in Japan’s literature, stage and film.

The samurai code demanded honor, virtue, respect, courage, self-discipline, self-sacrifice, obedience, benevolence and mastering martial skills. During the Kamakura period (1185-1333), the code defined the samurai’s role in society and how to live honorable and virtuous lives.

Those values varied from clan to clan.

Honor was so important in samurai days that defiling honor might in some circumstances only be restorable posthumously after ritual suicide by disembowelment — called hara-kiri (or seppuku).

This grim ritual however was not considered atonement when performed by commoners.

Samurai carried a special knife for just that purpose called a tanto (short blade) or wakizashi (small katana sword).

One report said, “Hara-kiri was originally a means of suicide. In old Japan, there was a capital punishment called "grant of death" which was applied exclusively to persons of high rank and position (that included the samurai).

“It was rather a favor of the lord to the accused, for it meant that a chance of suicide was given which was thought more honorable than an execution by force.”

Usually, a second or retainer (kaishaku) would by pre-arrangement decapitate the condemned to end prolonged suffering.

Seppuku was officially abolished by Emperor Meiji in 1873.

Loyalty to their master was even more important than to their own family. Samurai were trained warriors; they were not like the American West’s hired gunslingers.

In feudal Japan, there were some 250 daimyo (clan lords) who owned and controlled their own fiefdoms — at the pleasure of the Shogun who controlled all of Japan. Rivalry and warfare were commonplace among the daimyo, and those lords built their own private armies for protection.

The shogun had the power — not the Emperor, who was mostly a figurehead and until the 19th century were revered but not active in politics, living their lives sequestered in the imperial palace and encouraged to study art, literature and write poetry.

The samurai were at the top of the military hierarchy — like an imperial guard — and the shogun could call on those private armies whenever he needed them.

How did the samurai begin?

“During the 900s, the weak emperors of the Heian Era (A.D. 794-1185) lost control of rural Japan and the country was torn apart by revolt,” writes historian Dr. Kallie Szczepanski, describing those times.

“The emperor's power was soon restricted to the capital, and across the country, the warrior class moved in to fill the power vacuum. After years of fighting, the samurai established a military government known as the shogunate. By the early 1100s, the warriors had both military and political power over much of Japan.”

That all ended with Emperor Meiji who was born in 1852 — just a year after Commodore Matthew Perry and a fleet of American warships that the Japanese called the “Black Fleet” sailed into Edo Bay (now Tokyo Bay) and at cannon point demanded that isolationist Japan open up for trade.

Then Perry sailed back to the U.S., but returned two years later.

Unable to counter American naval fire-power, the Japanese gave in and signed the Treaty of Kanagawa, a trade treaty that would change the destiny of Japan forever.

In 1868 at age 16, Meiji ascended the throne following the death of his father, Emperor Komei. The following year, he married Ichijo Haruko, daughter of an Imperial official. They had no children, but Meiji fathered 15 children with his concubines — with only five surviving to adulthood.

Meiji’s reign would end Japan’s feudal system with its samurai tradition, and then guide the country into the modern world.

The samurai were the last of the Old Japan warriors.

Their weapon of choice was the iconic samurai sword (katana) — a remarkable weapon known for its amazing strength and cutting ability.

Making five different types of samurai swords, master swordsmiths were highly revered — and still are.

Japanese swordsmiths used local steel called “tamahagane” that they learned to refine and purify. Sword blades were made by heating the metal (combining hard iron, soft iron and steel) at high temperatures, then folding and hammering it over again and again — up to a dozen times.

“The swordsmith was not a mere artisan but an inspired artist and his workshop a sanctuary,” one report said. “Daily, he commenced his craft with prayer and purification … He committed his soul and spirit into the forging and tempering of the steel.”

According to legend, a sword made by 16th century master swordsmith Sengo Muramasa of the Muromachi period was so sharp that when it was held upright in a swiftly flowing stream, “the edge effortlessly cut in two any dead leaf that the current brought against it.”

The samurai had many other weapons as well such as daggers, spears and bows and arrows. They also rode horses, carried banners into battle, wore body armor and ferocious-looking helmets to frighten the enemy.

In 1543, Portuguese adventurers introduced guns after being shipwrecked near the shore of Tanegashima — an island south of Kyushu, Japan’s southernmost large island.

The last samurai was Saigo Takamori, born in 1828 in today’s Kagoshima Prefecture in southern Kyushu. In 1869, he helped Meiji end the Tokugawa shogunate that had ruled Japan since 1600 and kept it an isolated feudal nation, when he defeated them at the Battle of Boshin — also called the Japanese Revolution.

Takamori would have a tumultuous life thereafter, falling in and out of favor with the Emperor and other powerful authorities.

In the end, to preserve his honor, he committed suicide by the ritual seppuku and remains a hero in Japanese history to this day.

Meiji launched Japan on the path to becoming a world power by sending investigators around the world to learn — and later emulate — modern Western civilization.

After centuries of isolation, Japanese families began migrating overseas — bringing their rich culture with them.

Expatriate Japanese are well-disciplined, industrious, well-educated and are model citizens. Their communities have virtually no crime, are kept clean and neat and in the U.S., have contributed their cultural virtues to the American “Melting Pot.”

Those cultural virtues are rooted in ancient traditions that include the Samurai Code.

An article in Japan Today by Paula Gerhold describes the modern Japanese as culturally polite, punctual, kind, hardworking, respectful, modest to the degree of appearing shy, intelligent, team-players, formal (or reserved) when appropriate, clean and tidy.

Today’s Japanese seem a far cry from the Japanese soldiers in World War II, vilified by wartime propaganda.

With Japanese culture so much admired today, how could they ever have been so brutal?

Journalist, foreign correspondent and East Asia scholar Frank Gibney answers that question in his acclaimed book, "Five Gentlemen of Japan" — an excellent explanation of Japanese culture that traces the lives of five divergent Japanese men — a journalist, naval officer, steelworker, farmer and Emperor Hirohito.

For centuries, Japan lived in self-isolation from the rest of the world in a xenophobic society bound by strict cultural codes of conduct. Much of that survives to this day — the rest overwhelmed by Western culture following World War II.

Once overseas, Japanese military felt free from the social constrictions of everyday life back home.

The proverb “Tobi no haji-wo kakizute” became their mantra — a man away from home need feel no shame. This is the simple answer. There were other factors, of course, such as flawed leadership by Japanese military officers and failed discipline within the enlisted ranks.

The present high standard of social conduct by the Japanese is worth emulating in today’s culturally turbulent world.

Emperor Meiji died of uremia on July 29, 1912, after suffering a long time from diabetes, nephritis and gastroenteritis.

For nearly a half century, Japan weathered political, economic and social revolution during his historic reign — now called the Meiji Restoration.

There have been 126 emperors of Japan, dating back to 660 B.C., with Emperor Meiji perhaps being the greatest of them all — and will be forever remembered for ending the Age of the Samurai, and then ushering feudal Japan onto the world stage as a modern nation.

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Contact Syd Albright at silverflix@roadrunner.com.

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Women samurai…

While the word “samurai” is a strictly masculine term, but there were female samurai as well in Old Japan since as early as A.D. 200. Known as “Onna-Bugeisha,” meaning “woman warrior,” they were trained in martial arts and fought alongside the samurai. Their favorite weapon was the naginata, a sharp blade at the end of a long pole.

Japanese emperors short-lived…

Few emperors of Japan lived long enough to retire. Among the Meiji Emperor's five predecessors, only his grandfather lived into his 40s, dying aged 46. The Imperial Family suffered very high rates of infant mortality. All five of the Emperor's brothers and sisters died as infants, and only five of his own 15 children from his concubines reached adulthood.

— Andrew Gordon, "A Modern History of Japan: From Tokugawa Times to the Present"

Difference between Samurai and Ninja…

Samurai were high class respected warriors in historic Japanese society who even in mortal combat, adhered to the ancient Bushido code of ethics. Ninja were mercenaries from the lower classes and usually fought stealthily with no code of ethics, specializing in ambushing, spying, sabotage and assassination — usually dressed entirely in black to avoid detection in the dark.

Sayonara shaved heads…

Samurai shaved the top of their heads so helmets would fit better in battle. But as samurai days were ending during the Meiji period (1868-1912), the samurai were prohibited from wearing swords, armor and helmets, so their traditional shaved hair style lost its significance.

Quick facts about today’s Japan…

Japanese live four years longer than Americans, on average. Japan has more than 3,000 McDonald’s restaurants — most of any country. True Kobe beef comes from cattle that receive daily massages, and are fed a diet of saké and beer mash in the summer. Japan has 5.5 million vending machines — almost one on every street corner — selling beer, hot and cold canned coffee, cigarettes, wine, comic books, hot dogs, light bulbs, bags of rice, toilet paper, umbrellas, fish bait, fresh eggs and much more.

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UNIVERSAL STUDIOS

Movie photo of 47 samurai called Ronin after the death of their master who they revenged when he was killed, and then sacrificed their own lives — a movie loosely based on a true Japanese historical tragedy.

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Photo courtesy of SHUTTERSTOCK INC.

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RADAR PICTURES

Battle scene from the movie "The Last Samurai" starring Tom Cruise.

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GOOGLE IMAGES

Some of the weapons carried by the samurai.

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WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Saigo Takamori (1828-1877) was called the Last Samurai and today is considered a popular historic figure and cultural icon in Japan.

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GOOGLE IMAGES

Photo taken in a classroom in Vancouver, B.C., of culturally well-disciplined children of immigrant Japanese (1929).

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GOOGLE IMAGES

Colorized photo of samurai in the late 1800s.

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GETTY IMAGES

Tomoe Gozen was a 12th century female samurai, a favorite subject in Japanese history, literature and entertainment media.

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IMPERIAL COLLECTION

Painting by Takahashi Yuichi of Emperor Meiji (1852-1912) who brought Japan out of the feudal samurai era into the Modern Age.

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TELEN ART MUSEUM

Portrait of Emperor Meiji in later years, his beard covering a deformed jaw, a birth defect due to his royal ancestors marrying first cousins.

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WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Commodore Matthew C. Perry (1794-1858), who sailed into Edo Bay (now Tokyo Bay) in 1853 with a show of U.S. naval power and demanded that feudal Japan open up to trade, an event that changed Japanese history forever.

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GOOGLE IMAGES

Japanese depiction of one of Commodore Matthew Perry’s “Black Ships,” part of a fleet that sailed into Edo Bay in 1853, subsequently forcing Japan to open up trade with other nations or face military consequences.

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GOOGLE IMAGES

Woodblock print by famous artist Hiroshige of the 47 Ronin making a revenge attack on the home of a rival Japanese lord who had murdered their master.

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WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Gravesite of the 47 Ronin at Senkakuji in the middle of downtown Tokyo.