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Tradition in Japan prizes grace, tranquillity and harmony with nature. But tradition also celebrates the fierce warrior of Japan; the samurai. Sometimes wandering alone, more often fighting in Japans complex civil wars, the samurai may have been history\'s most effective and terrifying warriors.
Legends, movies, popular fiction, books in Japan and all over the world picks the samurai as the most lethal swordsman that has ever lived. Was he that lethal? Yes. Was it pure technique, mere mastery of the sword that made the samurai so deadly, or was it near magical powers that came from their harmony with beauty and nature? For the samurai death had to be something beautiful and honourable. Was this the way they could fight with such intensity because they where unrestrained and un-distracted by the fear of death?
"If one is to fight bravely, he must not be held back by the silly nonsense of survival stuck in his head." -Hagakure, The Book of the Samurai.
All warriors in every culture are trained to be brave in the face of death. What made the samurai unique was he often choose to die. If defeated in battle or disgraced in some other way, honour demanded suicide. Tradition demanded a grizzly ritual sometimes called seppuku, sometimes hara-kiri. The samurai plunged his blade into the side of his abdomen, pulling it to the other side and finishing with an upward pull of the blade. This was extremely painful and it could take hours, even days to die. So another, usually a friend, would act as a second and at any sign of hesitation would cut of his head. That way he kept his honour. When cutting of the head the second would leave a tiny piece of skin on the throat so the head wouldn\'t roll around and insult people.
The word samurai means "to serve" and that\'s how it began, as warriors serving the emperor. Divided by steep mountain ridges Japan was a difficult land for a central government to rule. The emperor needed mounted warriors who could move swiftly to enforce his authority in even the most remote villages. In the 8th and 9th century they started as rough and tough tax collectors that could shake down the peasants and collect the emperors taxes. Eventually the emperors warrior servants realised they could be the masters. By the year 1300 the samurai had taken the provinces they had once administrated for the emperor. The samurai built castles and created hierarchies where samurai warriors served samurai generals, who in turn served samurai lords, daimyos. Having established themselves the daimyos began fighting each other with samurai armies. The samurais fought for their lord to expand his land and to increase his power. There was, however, always something else at stake: the warriors\' personal honour. Nothing was more important than honour. Not his own life or his family\'s or friends life. Not even loyalty. But how far would the samurai go to preserve his honour?
For over 300 years, beginning in the 14th century, Japan was racked by civil wars. But even large battles often consisted of simultaneously individual duals. The samurai declared their merits before the battle so they could be properly matched. That way they could preserve their honour. Then they fought to the death.
But why were they so obsessed with honour? Samurai status was inherited, but trough most of Japanese history anyone could declare themselves samurai. But to get hired they had to establish a reputation and maintain it. Their armour wasn\'t only for protection but also to make them look even more fierce. It hade to say "this was a warrior to be reckoned with!" If killed in battle or committing seppuku, death always included beheading. Before going to battle the samurai would burn incense in his helmet so if his head was taken as a trophy the smell would please his victor. Often both sides witnessed the duels and both applauded when the beheading was done. The taking of the head may seem barbaric, but the reason is simple: a head is proof that an enemy has been slain and his lord often rewarded the samurai for the heads.
To prepare for battle the samurai carried a small arsenal of weapons: bow and arrow, a lethal variety
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Samurai, Seppuku, Bushido, Harakiri, Samurai cinema, Edo society
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