The samurai were well known for their ability to go into battle and show no fear. They proudly wore their swords and placed great value to their sword; a value that many non-Japanese couldn’t fully appreciate. Before Japan modernized the samurai class was at the top of the social hierarchy. During that time many outsiders were not allowed to enter Japan, and as a result the West knew very little about their culture. Of course more is known now, but then a foreigner might not see their martial culture let alone be a part of it. Most of what we know now is because of written works. In this paper I will explore the samurai martial culture and their great appreciation of the sword. Some people, however, fail to realize that their appreciation of the sword was, not to kill people, but of the sword’s spiritual and philosophical importance.
It is noted that a study of early Japanese literature concluded that both the iron sword and swordsmanship played highly significant roles in the founding of the Japanese nation and in the subsequent expansion and maintenance of its sociopolitical order. This is a strong statement, but not at all exaggerated. It wasn’t before the Nara era (710 – 794) that the single-edged, curved blade, two-handed sword came into existence. Swords are a part of Japanese culture up until a bit after the Meiji Era (1868 – 1912). If you take a quick comparison of how many years the sword has been a big part of the Japanese culture, it approximates to a thousand years. That is plenty of time to cultivate and refine the sword and swordsmanship into their culture. There is a whole etiquette one must practice very precisely or else they might be struck down before they even knew what they did was wrong.
During medieval Japan, the samurai class were also the bushi class, and the bushi’s trade of that time was known as bugei, or the “martial arts”. Those “martial arts” mostly comprised of swordsmanship. However, before the rise of the bushi class could have taken place, there had to be a very important change to the Japanese swords of that time. This development was so extensive that the new swords created such a vast technological gap between the Japanese and their opponents which resulted in their opponents being completely disadvantaged.
That technological change was the curvature of the sword. The curved blade undoubtedly enhanced the sword’s cutting ability. A blade curved backward, away from its cutting edge, promotes a smooth, slicing cut, and distributes the impact more evenly along the whole of the weapon than a straight blade would, reducing the shock transmitted back to the holder. It was this curved blade that would last for centuries. In this day, the curved blade is synonymous with the samurai.
The bushi were brought up only to fight, however they were still cultured. They swore allegiance to their lords or masters and would often die for them. An old adage said, “We will not die peacefully, but we will die by the side of our master. If we go to the sea, our bodies shall steep in water. If we go to the field, over our corpses the grass shall grow.” However, besides their fighting accomplishments they would also undertake other cultural events or ceremonies, such as calligraphy, the tea ceremony, flower arranging, poetry, and painting. The hierarchy was well known from this excerpt from the “Legacy of Ieyasu”, who was the first Tokugawa ruler:
The bushi are the masters of the four classes. Agriculturists, artisans and merchants may not behave in a rude manner towards bushi. The term for a rude man is ‘other-than-expected fellow,’ and a bushi is not to be interfered with in cutting down a fellow how has behaved to him in a manner other than is expected.
With such a government sanction, the bushi were permitted to have the privilege of kirisute gomen, or “killing and going away,” which is the right to kill a disrespectful commoner right there on the spot. But the strictures of warrior’s code helped to prevent this privilege to becoming a license. As I will discus, most of the cultural aspects did evolve around the sword.
The Western world identified the bushi as barbarians, and that they placed high regard to military power, weapons, and fighting methods. There are many accounts for this in recorded history. Bernradino de Avila Giron, writing on early seventeenth century bushi, said: ”Name a Japanese and you name an executioner,” and Titsingh in the eighteenth century endorses that judgment by writing: “The Japanese policy was animated by a fierce spirit of martial fanaticism and hostility to all innovation, backed by the assassin’s tool and all the weapons of Oriental treachery and ruthless cruelty.” Even historian James Murdoch remarks the Japanese “…traditional national appetite for warlike enterprises.”
During the life of the bushi there was the “way of the warrior”, or bushido as it would be called. Bushido was never a written code, more like it was communicated orally from leader to follower. Bushido, in its earliest development, incorporated Shinto and Confucian ideas such as filial piety and respect for their ancestors. Another cultural root of bushido was Buddhism, with its concepts of embedded trust in fate or destiny, submissiveness to the inevitable, and stoic composure when faced with misfortune. Also, the rise of rural military nobility brought with it a bound of loyalty between leader and subordinate not based on kinship, but rather on mutual benefit and honor. Note the Confucian idea of the social hierarchy between leader and subsidiary within the code of bushido. This also implies that the samurai were the top social class of that time.
The impact of bushido on the warrior ethos, and on the overall Japanese culture, was of such great proportions that the subject cannot be ignored in any meaningful study of Japanese swordsmanship, or even Japanese history. Bushido did have somewhat of a strict code to it. Even though the bushi were at the top of the social class, they had the task of living up to what was expected of them. There were seven distinctive “virtues”, cited by Nitobe in his book Bushido, which are: justice, courage, benevolence, politeness, veracity, honor, and loyalty. Perhaps the most known story about the code of bushido is the story of the 47 ronin. Ronin are classified basically as masterless samurai, or a samurai who pledges no loyalty to a certain lord. The story of the 47 ronin, briefly, is that a lord has been slain, and the 47 ronin, who were ronin once their lord was killed, were pledged to that lord sought revenge and killed the lord who had slain their lord. They were eventually ordered to commit seppuku, or ritual suicide, by the shogun. They still are regarded as being very loyal to their lord and a great example of the code of bushido.
One of the basic creeds that modern writers associate with bushido is that a true samurai was not only willing to risk his life when called upon to do so, but actually looked forward to the opportunity to sacrifice himself in the line of duty. It is quite well known that dying was included in the bushi’s duty, especially to sacrifice themselves to save their lord. A good expression of this is by Oswald White:
In Japan poets and romantic writers likened the warrior to the cherry blossom. The cherry tree was cultivated not for its fruit, but for its flower, which the Japanese have taken to their hearts as the symbol of purity, of loyalty, and of patriotism. Its beauty is short-lived. One moment the tree is decked out in ethereal beauty, the next a wind arises and the petals flutter to the ground. But there is no cause for tears because next year the tree will present the same brave display. The life of the warrior was like that of the cherry blossom. It was dedicated to his country and when the time came it was laid down without hesitation.”
By committing seppuku, a bushi demonstrated his loyalty, defended or regained his honor, avoided or atoned for real or imaginary disgraces, apologized for error, and, in general, expiates all crimes he had committed. This act of suicide, once again, demonstrates that dying wasn’t seen as big as it is in the American culture. At first, seppuku was seen as a means of avoiding capture by the enemy. If a warrior even thought that he could have been captured, he would have fallen on his sword or slit his own throat. This act soon grew into a primary expression of loyalty and honor to be carried out when the warrior’s cause became hopeless or when his superior, to whom he had sworn loyalty to, had been killed. With Japan’s modernizing within the Meiji era, the warrior creed of bushido had died.
One of the most important cultural and even spiritual aspects of the samurai was the sword. They treasured it even more than their own lives. As I mentioned above, if one were to mistakenly do the wrong thing with another’s sword or even their own, a duel would take place with no verbal challenge made. John Saris in 1605, as quoted by Draeger and Smith, reports of the Tokugawa period: “That whosoever draws a weapon in anger, although he does no harme therewith, hee is presently cut in peeces: and doing but small hurt, not only themselves are so executed, but their whole generation. (sic)” This quote means that if a samurai would to unsheathe their sword in public, another swordsman would take that as a challenge and a duel will commence.
There is a lot of etiquette of the Japanese sword. How to wear it, how to place it upon your wall for decoration, and, the one I will be exploring more here, how to use it in front of other swordsmen. A serious breath of sword etiquette was the striking of one’s scabbard, called saya-ate. Basically, this is the knocking of one’s scabbard against another person or some object as one moves about in the streets. Here, especially if the scabbard of one’s sword hits another’s, the one that has been hit takes it personally and feels that the other has no respect for him and his sword.
Another important point of sword etiquette was that a warrior was required to surrender his long sword at the time he was entering the main entrance where he was visiting. Not only is it considered an insult for a warrior to keep his long sword while entering the place where he was a guest, it also meant that if he were to sit it would be most uncomfortable. The position of the warrior’s long sword was also something he should be cautious about. If he placed it along the floor to his right side, it was considered that he had no ill intentions to his host; however, if he placed it along his left side with the blade away from him, this was an insult not likely to be ignored by the host and would often become a duel between the two.
The warrior considered his sword as a physical part of his soul. Any insult done by someone to his sword, such as touching it without permission, was considered a personal insult to the owner. Any transgression whatsoever of the rules of etiquette towards the long sword will more likely be interpreted as an insult to the owner’s personal honor. Once again, if this happened, it would result in a clash with personal honor at stake.
You can tell the classical warrior took much care and pride in his sword by the way he would clean it. One of the reasons a warrior doesn’t want anyone to touch their sword is that when a person touches the naked blade with their hands, the oil on their hand or fingers will make the blade rust if not taken care of promptly. With such care, it’s expected that the warrior gave such consideration in cleaning the blade. The owner would remove all traces of oil on the blade by first wiping it with washi, a soft handmade fibrous paper that could not scratch the high finish of the metal. After that, he would dust the blade with uchiko, a fine powder that absorbed all minute traces of oil and served as the mildest of abrasives to give luster to the blade. After that, he would wipe the blade again with a washi to remove any traces of the powder left.
The classical warrior regarded their customs of etiquette of the sword as very serious, to be respected and obeyed to the letter. As noted above, if a samurai failed to comply with the set of rules placed onto the sword, they would end up in a fight that may cost them their lives. A protocol that they must learn never to breach.
With the use of the sword as the main weapon in Japan, the Japanese have developed many styles of swordsmanship in how to properly fight with them. It wasn’t until the fifteenth century, during the Sengoku era, that we have reliable evidence to prove that the bushi practiced swordsmanship, and that they included the body of rigorous ethics. Various terms can be used to describe these two major forms of swordsmanship, but it is convenient to categorize them as being either kenjutsu or iai-jutsu. However, the art of swordsmanship wasn’t only learning to kill people with the sword, but it also was a sort of spiritual training. Draeger and Warner describe it perfectly:
It is true that classical combative swordsmanship in Japan was originally taught to protect the individual warrior so that he could better defend a specific social nexus. Martial strength is obviously implied by a man armed with a sword, but the use of the sword for wanton destruction has always been genuinely discouraged.
The sword is to be used only in the spirit of gokoku taihei: to ‘defend the great peace.’
This quote can be related to the code of ethics of bushido; however, they aren’t exactly the same. The spirit of gokoku taihei is meant more of using the sword to save people, but only as a last resort. Unfortunately, that last resort would often pop up and the person would have to strike the other man down. If another samurai was going to do this, they had to be confident in their swordsmanship skills.
During the Meiji era (1868 – 1912) of Japan’s modernization and westernization swordsmanship fell into a steep decline. Technological advances of guns was being preferred over the close-quarter weapon of the sword. Japan began bringing in foreign experts of all sorts of things, but most notably military experts. The classical samurai quickly died out and a national army was being raised and trained by the experts that were brought in.
Not all went well during this time. In fact, there was great opposition to the modernization of Japan. People, mainly samurai, wanted Japan to stay the way it was. Perhaps one of the most important events that took place during this time was the Satsuma Rebellion in 1877 led by Saigo Takamori. The Satsuma Rebellion is known as the last and largest in a series of uprisings by former samurai that were discontent with the new government. In some respects, Saigo Takamori is also known as the last samurai.
The Portuguese brought muskets to Japan in 1549, but they weren’t widely accepted and certainly didn’t take people away from the sword. Of course, there’s not much sense in anyone learning how to properly wield a Japanese sword nowadays, but once you look past it’s logical reason of killing, people begin to see that the students are learning a lot more than just swordsmanship techniques. They are learning a lot of history and spirituality, they are learning a lot more about themselves than if they didn’t train in swordsmanship. Some might even say they are a better person because of it.
Draeger, Donn and Smith, Robert W. Comprehensive Asian Fighting Arts. New York: Kodansha International, 1980.
Draeger, Donn and Warner, Gordon. Japanese Swordsmanship: Technique and Practice. New York: Weatherhill, 2001.
Friday, Karl F. “Bushido or Bull? A Medieval Historian’s Perspective on the Imperial Army and the Japanese Warrior Tradition.” The History Teacher. 27.3 (May 1994): 339 – 349.
Friday, Karl F. “The Japanese Curved Sword.” The Iaido Journal. September 2003. 1 – 4.
Kublin, Hyman. “The ‘Modern’ Army of Early Meiji Japan.” The Far Eastern Quarterly. 9.1 (November 1949): 20 – 41.
Yates, Charles L. “Saigo Takamori in the Emergence of Meiji Japan.” Modern Asian Studies. 28.3 (1994): 449 – 474.