Asian Heritage Month Blog Event: Japanese Samurai

Asian Heritage Month Blog Event:

Japanese Samurai

By Zara D. Garcia-Alvarez

Samurai (侍) refers to the military nobility of Japan prior to its industrialization and means, “those who serve in close attendance to the nobility.”

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Samurai warriors described themselves as followers of “The Way of the Warrior” or Bushidō, which is defined by the Japanese dictionary as “a unique philosophy (ronri) that spread through the warrior class from the Muromachi (chusei) period…the Samurai felt that the path of the warrior was one of honour, emphasizing duty to one’s master, and loyalty unto death.”

A warrior is known to look forward to a glorious death in the service of a military leader or the emperor:

“It is a matter of regret to let the moment when one should die pass by….First, a man whose profession is the use of arms should think and then act upon not only his own fame, but also that of his descendants. He should not scandalize his name forever by holding his one and only life too dear….One’s main purpose in throwing away his life is to do so either for the sake of the Emperor or in some great undertaking of a military general. It is that exactly that will be the great fame of one’s descendants.” – Shiba Yoshimasa (1350–1410 AD).

Over time, powerful samurai clans became warrior nobility, or “buke,” who were under the court aristocracy.

Samurai Names

A samurai was usually named by combining one kanji from his father or grandfather and one new kanji. Samurai normally used only a small part of their total name.

For example, the full name of Oda Nobunaga would be “Oda Kazusanosuke Saburo Nobunaga” (織田上総介三郎信長), in which “Oda” is a clan or family name, “Kazusanosuke” is a title of vice-governor of Kazusa province, “Saburo” is a name before genpuku, a coming of age ceremony, and “Nobunaga” is an adult name. Samurai were able to choose their own first names.  (From wikipedia.org)

織田上総介三郎信長

Marriage

The marriage of samurai was done by having a marriage arranged by someone with the same or higher rank than those being married. Most samurai married women from a samurai family, but for a lower ranked samurai, marriages with commoners were permitted with a dowry brought by the woman and her family.

Traditional Japanese wedding dress.

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Women

Maintaining the household was the main duty of samurai women. This was especially crucial when warrior husbands were travelling abroad or engaged in clan battles. The wife, or okugatasama (“one who remains in the home”), was left to manage all household affairs, care for the children, and defend the home forcibly if necessary.

Many women of the samurai class were trained in wielding a polearm called a naginata or a special knife called the kaiken in an art called tantojutsu (“the skill of the knife”), which they could use to protect their household, family, and honour.

Kaiken

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Traits valued in women of the samurai class were humility, obedience, self-control, strength, and loyalty.

Weapons

The Chokutō sword is a straight blade followed by the curved tachi, the uchigatana and, the katana. Smaller swords are the wakizashi and the tanto.

Chokutō

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Wearing a long sword together with a smaller sword became the symbol of the samurai. This combination of swords is referred to as a daishō (“big and small”).

The yumi (“longbow”) reflected in the art of kyūjutsu (“the skill of the bow”). It’s made from bamboo, wood, rattan and leather and had an effective range of 50 meters. The practice of shooting from horseback became a Shinto ceremony known as yabusame (流鏑馬).

Yumi

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The yari (Japanese spear) displaced the naginata from the battlefield as personal bravery became less of a factor and battles became more organized.

Yari

Tanegashima (Japanese matchlock) were introduced to Japan in the 1543 through Portuguese trade.

Staff weapons made from oak were commonly known as the , the , the hanbo, and the tanbo.

Clubs and truncheons made of iron and/or wood included the jutte (a one-handed weapon) and the kanabo (large two-handed weapons).

Chain weapons (kusari) were used such as the kusarigama and Kusari-fundo.

Kusarigama

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The following terms are also related to samurai or the samurai tradition:

Uruwashii
a cultured warrior symbolized by the kanji for “bun” (literary study) and “bu” (military study or arts)

Buke (武家)
a martial house or a member of such a house

Mononofu (もののふ)

an ancient term meaning a warrior

Musha (武者)
a shortened form of bugeisha (武芸者) (“martial art man”)

Shi (士)
a word meaning “gentleman,” it is sometimes used for samurai, in particular in words such as bushi (武士) (“warrior” or “samurai”)

Tsuwamono (兵)
an old term for a soldier literally meaning “strong person”

Here are some books about the Samurai:

Tales of the Otori Book Series

Across the Nightingale Floor: Book One
Grass for His Pillow: Book Two
Brilliance of the Moon: Book Three
The Harsh Cry of the Heron: Book Four

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The Sano Ichiru Book Series

Shinju: Book One
Bundori: Book Two
The Way of the Traitor: Book Three
The Concubine’s Tattoo: Book Four
The Samurai’s Wife: Book Five

* There are more in this series.

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The Samurai’s Garden by Gail Tsukiyama

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The Samurai: A Brief History of the Warrior Elite by Jonathan Clements

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The Art of the Samurai by Yamamoto Tsunetomo

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Samurai: An Illustrated History by Mitsuo Kure

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Here are some clips from the popular film, The Last Samurai:

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To see a collection of images of the Samurai, you can check out my Samurai Warriors board on Pinterest.

To see more postings for the Asian Heritage Month Blog Event, please visit here.

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What is it about the Samurai that you respect the most?

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4 thoughts on “Asian Heritage Month Blog Event: Japanese Samurai”

  1. Whoa, the weapons look cruel. Which of the books have you read and would like to recommend? I am long been fascinated by Japanese samurais (strengthened after watching Japanese anime, Samurai X), although my heart goes out to the women who have to defend their homes. Could you imagine that? Defend! My God. Thank you for this enriching post!

    1. I’ve been fascinated with the Japanese culture for a long time including Samurai (and probably moreso, Geisha)! I don’t have any particular book recommendation about samurai, but the illustrated history and the Art of the Samurai both look quite good! Will check out Samurai X—not familiar with it. Salamat Nancy! As always for coming by and sharing your thoughts. Will be featuring different Asian cultures throughout the month of May! 😀

      1. I could suggest a few more books to list-I am not Japanese but have read in many places the book of five rings heads any collection. I also would mention a book i have “The Samurai sword” and also “Sword and Brush” …and a few more out of many that have some distinction. I do have a question not being Japanese-my child, a girl was born with a very beautiful Moon and ‘Star’ (could have been a bright planet) in the overhead night sky, the crescent Moon on it’s back with arms holding the star -like the ITo Clan crest symbol. What I would like to know is there any issues with non japan peoples wearing this sign-my girl is now twenty and I have made her wait for some time to get a tattoo of a moon and star-what makes it so special a occasion is I gave this tattoo to myself at twenty but with no reference to the Japanese Clan signs. Is it offensive to some Japanese for non clan members to use such signs? I would think so somewhat-is it also a bit dangerous in japan itself as I hear Tattoos usually mean your Yakuza or criminal. I would think this has less meaning that way last few years. If You would like a list of my books or any other inquiries or feed back email me , wiredwullff@gmail.com thank you- a fine blog-I would be willing to write a better less personal reply if you wish to post my reply. PS -I am of the Opinion the Samurai Sword is the finest -even over the Chinese.

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