Samurai were Japanese warriors who were revered for their skills as warriors, but also for their distinct influence on Japanese fashion. Samurai first appeared in Japan as early as the eighth century, but they truly rose to power in the eleventh century as elite warriors in service to their feudal lords, or daimyos. Other samurai served as guards of the imperial palace. The samurai were accorded special status after about 1600. They alone had the privilege of wearing two swords, they married only among their own class, and they passed their privileges on to their children. The word samurai literally means "to be on one's guard."
The samurai, or warrior class, replaced the court nobles who had once surrounded the ruler. These nobles had always worn ceremonial clothing and lived a very formal existence within large castles. The rulers understood that the samurai were strong and wise and capable of forming their own armies and taking control of the country. To keep the power of the samurai in check, the rulers encouraged the samurai to live by elaborate rules about dress and behaviour. Samurai lived by a code of honour known as Bushido, the way of the sword. Loyalty, truthfulness, sincerity, and readiness to die for honour were its main attributes. The samurai also became very dedicated to ceremony and to acquiring and displaying meaningful colours, fabrics, and styles.
Samurai were dressed for speed and travel. Their basic uniform had wide hakama trousers, open halfway down the leg and ending above the ankle. The under-kimono of the samurai could be slipped off for a sword battle, while remaining secured at the waist by the hakama's hard waistband and ties. The over vest had impressive winged shoulders and was sleeveless, so that the samurai looked both grand and dangerous and was able to swing his arms around with his two swords.
Historically, samurai and geishas have been the two greatest influences on Japanese fashion and taste. Both had the status, visibility, and intelligence to cultivate distinctive colors, fabrics, and styles, changing them regularly to keep the public enthralled, much like today's rock stars or actors and actresses.
The samurai disappeared as a distinct class in the nineteenth century. In modern Japan some towns celebrate the history of the samurai by holding annual pageants or parades where participants dress in reproductions of historical samurai styles. The traditional practices of archery, swordsmanship, and martial arts all have their basis in samurai culture. Today, many practitioners of these disciplines are greatly respectful and knowledgeable about their samurai forefathers.
Literally translated as "way of the warrior," Bushido evolved into a clearly defined ethical system of the bushi, or warrior class of Japan, during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; the term first appeared in the Kōyō gunkan in about 1625. In his 1899 Bushido: The Soul of Japan, Nitobe Inazō, the first to articulate the concept in English, enumerated seven essential values of the warrior class: justice, courage, benevolence, politeness, veracity and sincerity, honor, and loyalty. More recently, Bushido has been credited with fueling Japanese atrocities in World War II, through "the unassailable rule that death is preferable to dishonour" (Edwards, p. 5). In fact, neither of these popular conceptions accurately represents the codes of warrior behavior that developed over the course of six centuries.
The Warrior Governments of Japan
In 1192 Minamoto Yoritomo established the first bakufu, or "tent government," to counter the growing inability of the imperial family and aristocracy to control the provinces. From that time until the Meiji Restoration of 1868 Japan was governed by its warrior class.
Yoritomo's Kamakura government was later idealized as the warrior's "Golden Age," when "selfless loyalty unto death" characterized relations between warlords and their samurai retainers. Modern scholarship has uncovered a different picture, however. According to Dr. Karl Friday, "From the beginnings of the samurai class and the lord/vassal bond in the eighth century to at least the onset of the early modern age in the seventeenth, the ties between master and retainer were contractual, based on mutual interest and advantage, and were heavily conditioned by the demands of self-interest" (p. 342). There was no single prescriptive code of behavior; instead each warrior clan had its own behavioural norms, sometimes listed in formal "house precepts," or kakun, or in admonitory epistles to a lord's heirs and retainers.
These early warrior documents varied considerably—some had a decidedly Buddhist cast, others insisted on a thorough education in the arts, while still others advised a single-minded focus on strategy and skills for battle. Some were written in a highly stylized Chinese form; others were composed in a more natural Japanese manner. The Chinese-influenced theme of balance between bun (literature) and bu (martial skills), bunbu ryōdō, appears frequently. So do the reciprocal admonitions of loyalty to the lord and benevolence toward retainers. Maintaining martial skills is so important that Shiba Yoshimasa writes, "Insofar as martial arts are concerned, it goes without saying that one should practice …"
From War to Peace
Prior to the Edo period (1600–1868), the primary function of a warrior was to fight. Writing about how to behave as warriors was of less immediate concern than actual battlefield skills. Tokugawa Ieyasu changed all that, through the unification of the country and his establishment of the third and final bakufu in 1603. Suddenly the bushi, who had been engaged in almost continual warfare for one hundred years, were left without any battles to fight. By the eighteenth century, the gap between name and role had widened to the point that the bushi experienced a full-fledged identity crisis. The samurai were now primarily administrators and bureaucrats searching for an understanding of their proper role in a warless age.
Unlike their predecessors, who had been writing for fighting men and clan leaders, thinkers such as Yamaga Sokō and his student Daidōji Yūzan wrote about Bushido in an attempt to define and encourage behaviors that would distinguish warriors from the other classes of farmers, artisans, and merchants. Incorporating a more traditional Confucianism than the state-favored Neo-Confucianism, Yamaga argued that the primary duty of the warrior was to serve as an exemplar for the rest of society, through deeply cultivated sincerity of action.
Yamamoto Tsunetomo, in the Hagakure, saw a very different purpose for the eighteenth-century warrior—"The Way of the Samurai is found in death" (p. 17). This anachronistic view—warriors had not died in battle for more than a century—is frequently misunderstood. In order to control the armed warriors, Tokugawa Ieyasu established a series of inviolable laws; these at times came into conflict with the warrior's individual loyalties or sense of honor. In particular, both parties in any conflict between samurai were to be punished equally; in this context, Yamamoto urged that if warriors were forced to break the Shogun's law they might as well fight to the death.
The values of the bushi, both actual and idealized, have permeated all levels of Japanese society. In the Edo period, members of the merchant class deliberately adopted samurai standards of behavior to identify themselves more closely with the ruling class. After the Meiji Restoration, unemployed samurai became doctors and educators, and brought their written codes with them. The Imagawa kabegaki, by the fourteenth-century poet-warlord Imagawa Ryōshun, was even used as a textbook in Edo-period schools. During the years prior to the Meiji Restoration, the samurai's spirit of sincerity in action, loyalty, and self-sacrifice allowed them to take leadership in the revolt that would lead to the abolition of their class.
Bushido's most tragic legacy is the warped version ultranationalists used in formulating propaganda to encourage and sustain the Japanese solider before and during World War II. The spirit of the Hagakure incited young Japanese men to become kamikaze suicide pilots; death was promoted as preferable to surrender.
In the early twenty-first century the term Bushido appeared more frequently in English-language martial arts publications than it ever did in early warrior texts. And even though Nitobe's list of virtues was not directly derived from actual warrior codes, it did reflect romanticized warrior ideals that the rapidly modernized Japanese recognized as noble and found comforting to call their own.
Life of the Knights in the Middle Ages
It was the duty of a Middle Ages Knight to learn how to fight and so serve their liege Lord according to the Code of Chivalry. The Code of Chivalry dictated that a Knight should be brave and fearless in battle but would also exhibit cultured Knightly qualities showing themselves to be devout, loyal, courteous and generous.
Weapon practise included enhancing skills in the two-handed sword, battle axe, mace, dagger and lance. A Knight would be expected to guard the Castle and support his liege lord in Middle Ages warfare. Details of the life of Middle Ages knights in a castle, together with castle warfare, are covered in the section about Middle Ages Castles.
The Knights Armour in the Middle Ages
The Knights Armour of the Middle Ages was extremely expensive to produce. It had to be tailor-made to fit the Knight exactly or the Knight ran the risk of an ill-fitting suit of armor hampering him in battle. A Middle Ages Knights Armour was a complex series of garments, chain mail and iron plate.
The Knights job & the Knights Code of Chivalry in the Middle Ages
The Knights job in the Middle Ages centred around enhancing their Knightly skills in the use of weapons, horsemanship and medieval warfare. The sons of Nobles, except those who were destined to take Holy Orders, were placed in the service of the great Lords of the land. These sons of the Middle Ages nobles were sent to live in the castle of their liege lord and commence their education and learn the skills required as a Knight. The Middles Ages castles served as 'Knight School!' Strict Codes of Conduct dictated the life of a Knight during the Middle Ages and the strict etiquette of their everyday life revolved around the Code of Chivalry, courtly manners and courtly love. A knight would start their life in a castle as a Page and then move up to the role of a Squire.
Knights Tournaments and Jousting
The Knights practised their knightly skills at the tournaments of the Middle Ages. Various forms of combat were practised at the tournaments including jousting, archery and hand to hand combat using swords and other weapons. This section covers Knights Tournaments and jousting including the history of jousting, jousting terminology and jousting weapons.