MYTHS ABOUT THE SAMURAI

In Western media there seems to be an over-enthusiastic apotheosis of the samurai. I’m not denying that the samurai were skilled and valorous warriors but let’s take a step back, remove the blindfold and evaluate them more objectively.

Myth #16 - The samurai were the greatest warriors in world history

False – Physically, samurai were not very formidable; unlike the samurai portrayed in the movies, most of them were extremely short and not well built. In the 16th-Century, observations by Jesuits and traders remarked about the small stature of the samurai being more akin to children than those of grown men. A visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Japanese armor display confirms this; much of the adult male armor reflects a diminutive stature of approximately 4’- 5” to 5’-4” in height. In contrast, the western armor exhibit in the adjacent room displays European knight’s armor of which the average wearer was between 5’-4” and 6”-1”. There were exceptions of course.

Myth #17 - Samurai were the bravest, fearless and most honorable warriors in history

False — Regarding the question of honor, bravery and fearlessness in the face of death; many warriors throughout history have all shared the same values: including a varying dedication to a set of prescribed virtues and/or principles. Whether it’s the Ancient Greeks, Roman’s, Crusader’s, Viking’s, American Indians, Napoleon’s “Grande Armee,” the Zulu’s or the U.S. Marines, there’s no lack of warrior spirit and/or deed among any of these groups. My vote for the top three spots in the category of “history’s greatest warrior’s” would be #1. The Spartan’s, #2. The Mongols, and #3. The Viking’s.

Myth #18 - As a group, samurai armies were the most formidable in history

Not by a long shot — The Mongols were history’s most formidable and successful conquerors, generating more terror and gaining more territory than any other people in history. Fortunately for the Japanese, the Mongols two invasions were unsuccessful due to a quirk of fate (both coincided exactly with major typhoons).

Every major western nation at one time or another has followed this example to a lesser extent. Early Japanese armies were never that large and battles for the most part consisted of skirmishes and one-on-one duels. Later, in the 16th and 17th Centuries, battles started becoming large affairs, but they were hardly the size of the great European wars.

Myth #19 - The Japanese sword was history’s most fearsome and dangerous weapon

Not by a long shot! — at the end of the day, a sword is a sword is a sword. In terms of techniques — Japanese fencing is not too dissimilar from European Medieval broadsword fighting. But the Europeans (especially the Spanish and Italians) evolved their methods to emphasize the more efficient point instead of the slash, and developed a more sophisticated methodology of swordplay. All things being equal, IMO, a samurai would be at a disadvantage against a Spaniard with a rapier.

Myth #20 - Samurai swords were the best made swords ever!

In terms of materials — modern steels are far superior to the best metals used by Japanese sword smiths. What is not widely known however is that Solingen, Toledo and Damascus steel was every bit as good as the finest steel from Japan. Recent excavations in China have revealed extremely well -made swords that have retained their edge to this day. Some rare Viking swords were also fashioned in the same manner as Japanese swords, hundreds of years before.

Myth #21 - The Japanese sword was considered the soul of the samurai

Not completely true – for a good deal of Japanese history the warriors of Japan did not emphasize the sword at all. The first samurai were highly skilled archers, especially on horseback. They were also trained to use the spear, sword and a multitude of smaller weapons. The sword really became more popular with samurai around the end of the Heian period (794 ~ 1191)

Myth #22 - Samurai have always been part of Japan

False — Although Japan had a warrior class going back to about 200 AD, the samurai class as we know them, began during the Kamakura period (1192 ~ 1336).  These warriors believed in duty above all and received land for their service; very similar to European knights. Under the Tokugawa shogunate, the samurai were removed from direct control of the villages, moved into the domain castle towns, and given government stipends. They were encouraged to take up bureaucratic posts. As a result, they lost a great measure of their earlier martial skills.

Myth #23 - Bushido was the standard code for all samurai for a thousand years

False — It did not become a standard code until the Tokugawa period in the 17th Century. After the Meiji restoration (1868), it was the basis for the cult of emperor worship taught until 1945. Inasmuch as the codes of Chivalry for European Knights were rooted in Christianity, the code of Bushido was born out of a combination of Buddhism, Zen, Confucianism, and Shintoism. Never written but passed from generation to generation by word of mouth, it nevertheless was a guide for the Japanese nobility. The code was first formulated in the late Kamakura period and put into writing in the 16th century; the term “Bushido” however did not come into use until the 17th Century.

Myth #24 - Samurai were always steadfastly loyal and honorable to their lords

Nothing could be further from the truth — although many samurai were devoted to their lords, many others were treacherous and deceiving. Japanese history is rife with tales of betrayal. The most popular method of betrayal was waiting on the outskirts of a battle to see who was winning, then suddenly change sides if it was to their advantage.

Some noteworthy examples of betrayal included: Minamoto-no-Yoritomo, who threatened the emperor for the sovereignty to rule Japan, Taira-no-Masakadoa revolting against the Kyoto government, Matsunaga Hisahide rebels against Oda Nobunaga, Tokugawa Ieyasu betrays Hideyoshi by taking the throne away from his son Hideyori. Samurai from the Choshu and Satsuma were responsible for overthrowing the shogun in 1867. When feudalism was abolished after the Meji Restoration, former samurai also took part in the Satsuma revolt under Takamori Saigo, in 1877.

Myth #25 - Ronin carried on the noble traditions of the samurai

Starting in the 17th Century, many ronin (leaderless samurai) became outright criminals, robbing and killing powerless townspeople to satisfy their own greed. One story suggests that the Yakuza was founded at this time, machi-yokko (servants of the town) to protect the locals from these “wave-men” (ronin). This is very similar to the rise of the Mafia in Sicily, in the 1800’s.

Myth #26 - Samurai were all macho, masculine and heterosexual

False — Homosexuality was an integral part of samurai life and was actively and cooperatively practiced. Although very few of the hundreds of samurai movies made in Japan hardly hinted at it; “nanshoku, the love of the samurai.” The indelible fact remains that one of the fundamental aspects of samurai life was the emotional and sexual bond cultivated between an older warrior and a younger (male) apprentice. Although women were deemed important because they continued the family line, many samurai preferred men for their emotional and physical relationships.

Known also as wakashudo, “the way of the youth,” it was a practice engaged in by all members of the samurai class, from lowliest warrior to highest lord. Indeed it has been said that it would never have been asked of a daimyo, “lord”, why he took boys as lovers, but why he didn’t.

Samurai shudo had its early beginnings in the Kamakura period in the 1200’s, and reached its apogee at the beginning of the Tokugawa shogunate in 1603 and subsequently declined as the country was unified and the importance of the warrior class diminished.

Myth #27 - Japan was already civilized when the West was still primitive.

Completely False – Japanese like to think that. Although primitive Japanese occupied many regions of present-day Japan, their civilization and culture started to form during the Asuka period (538 AD ~ 710 AD), when the Yamato polity gradually became a centralized state — 1,000 years after the height of Greek civilization Remember, Japan’s prehistoric/protohistoric age lasted well into the 5th-Century A.D. At that time, the Western Roman Empire had come and gone and the Eastern Roman Empire was thriving in Byzantium.

Myth #28 - The most skilled samurai lived between the 17th and 19th Century

False – With a few exceptions (i.e., Musashi, the Yagyu family, etc.) this was actually the worst period for samurai. There were no more wars, thus the samurai’s skills deteriorated. Most samurai at this time were given bureaucratic positions by the shogunate, and could only dream about their past glory. With time on their hands, many samurai of this time became scholars, studying poetry, tea ceremony, calligraphy, and flower arrangement. The code of Bushido was first written during this era.

Myth #29 - Samurai considered the ninja as warriors, like themselves

False — Every culture in the world has always used spies and assassins. Essentially, ninja’s (or shinobi) were Japan’s spies and assassins. These skills were transmitted to the Japanese through Chinese monks sometime between 600 AD ~ 900 AD. The best description of ninjitsu is that it’s guerrilla warfare. Overall, samurai despised ninja for their less than honorable methods but they also needed them. Ninja would do anything to accomplish their goals. Most ninja did not have highly developed fighting skills, rather, they used tricks and deception to escape.

Myth #30 - Yakuza trace their lineage to the samurai

False - Inasmuch as many Yakuza fantasize they are samurai and follow the way of Bushido, they actually don’t. At the beginning of the Tokugawa era, up to 500,000 samurai suddenly became unemployed. Many joined the merchant class but some of these ronin turned to crime and preyed upon small towns. To defend themselves against these masterless samurai from raiding their villages, the macchi-yokku (servants of the town) was born. Very similar in structure to the Mafia. Over time, like all gangs they began to prey upon their own people. Yakuza have no lineage to the samurai


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