Four misconceptions about samurai

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Tour leader and history lover, Marky throws light on the fabled world of the samurai, and shatters some popular misconceptions.

When you come to Japan, you’re going to come across references to samurai, a key role in Japanese society from the late Heian Period (let’s say the 1100s) until 1873 when Imperial Japan formally abolished them.

That said, families with proud samurai lineage continued to influence politics and high society well into… well, I can’t lie. Families with high samurai pedigree wield great power even to this day.

Samurai costume in Japan

Misconception #1: Japan always had samurai

Samurai developed from sons of imperial court families who didn’t inherit the family headship. The term implied service to a lord, originally in Kyōto, and from here the notion of obligatory service to one’s superior was born.

They were sent out to the boonies as military strongmen to ensure that peasants worked the land, and maintained militias to protect lands from neighbouring strongmen. The romanticised version you see in movies are generally from the 1500s to the 1860s, the former being warriors, the latter being bureaucrats.

Misconception #2: They were loyal to the death

This is probably the greatest misconception – even in Japan. In theory, every samurai served under a higher samurai or courtier. Hierarchy was the name of the game. That said, history gives us many accounts of changing loyalty if it worked to their favor.

One of the greatest examples is the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600, when samurai defected mid-battle and changed the tide of the war. This victory made a samurai named Tokugawa Ieyasu the de facto leader of Japan, and ushered in roughly 250 years of peace – the Edo Period.

Ironically, in the 1860s, it would be samurai who defected to the imperial court that overthrew the Tokugawa shōguns. So much for loyalty.

Misconception #3: Samurai were only men

While a merchant might call a samurai with two swords and a top knot 御侍様 o-samurai-sama (honorable sir samurai), people normally referred to these families as groups. 武士 bushi (warrior) was the day to day term for them. As a class, they were called 武家 buke (warrior clans). This is a reminder that by the Edo Period, they weren’t just guys with swords; they were a social class in a society with very little social mobility.

While they probably didn’t use weapons or practice martial arts, the wives and daughters were samurai women. That is to say, they were the 15-5% of the social elite. Concubines taken into samurai households were not considered highly, but their sons were important when marrying into other samurai families. Commoner women who married into the families were considered samurai if they could act the part, and their children were full samurai – regardless of gender.

Misconception #4: They were well trained for seppuku

Seppuku, or self-disembowelment, was totally a thing. To save face or protect their family line from poverty, they were ordered (or would sometimes volunteer) to commit seppuku.

There were strict rules about how to cut open your own belly properly. However, by the middle of the Edo Period (let’s say the 1700s), the act had become a ritual. A samurai of means owned a white seppuku kimono – just in case – saved in a special drawer at home.

If that awful day should ever arrive, in the late 19th century many used a folding fan in place of a knife and relied on the best swordsman they knew to perform the coup de grace.

A late Edo-period source even gives an example of a little boy not getting his way and threatening to commit seppuku with his wooden sword to demonstrate his desire to die over getting his way – something mothers all over the world may recognize as overdramatic. Chances are he had no clue how to properly carry out the ritual until he was a young man. Boys will be boys.

We’re lucky enough to have tour leaders who are knowledgeable about… well, just about everything to do with Japan. Whether it’s J-Pop that brings you joy, or you’re excited by ikebanaget in touch with our team of Japanophiles; we’d be delighted to plan your trip.

Hokusai samurai art
Hokusai’s portrait of the samurai

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