The Samurai

The Samurai is one of the most important symbols of Japanese culture. Its icon holds all the beauty and vision of a far away period, which is still able today to stir very powerful feelings

The history of the samurai started around the 11th and 10th century AD, even though it is impossible to establish an exact date. A divide in the history of Japan is certainly 795 AD, when the then emperor Kammu transferred the capital of modern Kyoto. The almighty Kammu, in the same period, takes another decision that will influence the future history of the Japan: it abolishes the mandatory military service and transforms the army in a warrior elite completely dominated and controlled by the aristocrats close to the royal family. This class of warriors (saburai or samurai) soon has to face several local battles that explode in the far away provinces of the country.

Throughout the centuries the samurais become the cast that hold the real power in Japan, even though the imperial authority is never doubted, but just set aside and emptied of all real powers, even though honored by a formal point of view.

The power of the weapons becomes the only title from a formal standpoint and the only way to gain power; this situation lasts up until the 16th century, when the country is unified by Oba Nobunaga.

The following shoguns (Hideyoshi, Ieyasu and Hidetaga), though coming from the cast of samurai, do everything to limit the power of their restless subordinates and promoting laws that put the samurais under the complete subordination and control of the Shogun, besides marking the isolation of Japan against external influences. So many samurais become wandering mercenaries (ronin), thus becoming the lead characters of a period that in the 18th century created the real legend of the this brave-heart as a romantic figure. Basically, these turbulent warriors create lots of problems and when Japan decides to open up to the world in the mid 19th century, the new emperor Mutsuhito decides that it is time to finally close the era of the samurai.

Most of the fascination that the figure of samurai mostly comes from the series of moral rules and behaviors that samurais had to follow strictly. These rules were coded over the centuries in a series of codes and the most important was the so-called Bushidō which translated, literally means “the path of the warrior”. The rules were written for the first time at the end of the 17th century (mostly considering the teachings of a monk- samurai Yamamoto Tsunemoto) but it was properly printed and made public only at the beginning of the 20th century, after the consolidation of the imperial power of the Meiji dynasty and the final cancellation of the cast of samurai from the Japanese political life. The Bushidō has moral, ethic rules, military and political science rules, largely inspired by Confucianism and the Zen doctrine.

The Bushidō calls for, in case of disobedience, the most severe punishments for the samurais, even more than any farmer that commits the same crime. Despising life (considered, according to Zen principles, a different side of death) leads the samurai to consider the possibility of suicide a concrete possibility, so much that it generates a real self-inflicted ritual of death, the seppuku (wrongly translated in the West as hara-kiri).

The samurai must kill himself by cutting his stomach with a sword so he won’t be captured by the enemy, for being punished by his master or emperor or to dissolve his pact of loyalty.

Bushidō has always been considered an ideal, just as Knighthood in Europe represented the ideal of every man and certainly controlled the wildest and most anarchical instincts of the dangerous “men with a sword”. That sort of ideal that has survived until nowadays