Japan's Ancient Warriors: Samurai History

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In modern Japan, we encounter this ‘honourable’ warrior through mass-media. He is often dressed in his famous armour, fighting his many battles with his trusty katana or even engaging in a brotherly fight with the warrior of the shadows, the ninja. While many may argue that these associations are manufactured, we seldom hear of his meek origin and how he has not only influenced Japanese society but also how he impacted the Western world. These are the points discussed in this report.

First and foremost, let's venture back to the birth of the samurai (or bushi ) and his rise to greatness. These ancient experts of warfare are far from the honourable warriors we encounter in popular culture. The ‘real’ tale of these beloved service begins with forced enrolment in the army which was part of the Chinese model the Japanese adapted at the time. When their enrolment was finished, they tended to settle in areas between their former places of residence and the battlefield. In the Heian Period (794-1185) (Jensen 2019) one sees the Emperor’s delusions of grandeur materialise and thus he called on the regional clan leaders to help him expand. However, this solution backfired magnificently since the clan leaders influence increased steadily. The clan leaders new-found power created new issues, for instance, these prominent chiefs need protection and thus the bushi were born. But before this important historical figure can be fully formed, they need to perfect their martial arts skills. At the closure of this period, the notion of a shugo begins to appear who rules the chiefs.

When a shogu completed his work in the provinces he was meant to return to Kyoto. Instead of doing so, we see a trend of shogu staying and passing on their knowledge to their offspring. The idea of the shogu would later morph into what is known as the daimyo. Through brutal tactics and arrange marriages, we observe the samurai’s slow rise to the top. From the wee hours of the Kamakura Period (1185-1333) (Jensen 2019) to the closure of the Takugawa Period (1600-1867) ('Timeline | Japan Module.' U.d.), the samurai have evolved from hired outlaws, who functioned as shields for the daimyo, to skilled puppeteers who used the upper echelons of society as their personal poppet show. This puppet show began in 1185 when the Minamoto established a new bakafu. In the early days of this bakafu there was no head until 1192 where Mr Minamoto Yoritomo gave himself the title of shôgun. (“The Age of the Samurai.” 2009) When the Japanese collided with the Europeans, more specifically the Portuguese, in the Asikaga Period (1336-1467) where they discovered the wonder that is firearms. Upon this discovery, many academics argue that the skills, tactics and even the core values of the samurai suffered significantly. Besides this, he is being challenged by the silent combatant of the shadows, the ninja. During the Edo Period, there is a great increase in ronins and samurais with a han in general. In the outset of this period, the people recognise the unlike samurai behaviour of the bakafu and wishes for the Emperor to be reinstated as the true ruler of Japan and thus people began to back the slogan Sonno joi. Later on, onlookers watch samurais being honoured by being allowed to wear a sword exclusively and thus acquiring the affectionate name ‘two sword man.’ (“Samurai and Bushido.” 2018) Finally, from the Meiji Period (1868-1912) ('Timeline | Japan Module,' u.d.) onwards, we see the samurai taking the form he has today, but first, he needs to become a symbol the government could use for political purposes.

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Secondly, let's investigate how these supposed men of honour help build Japan we know today and how his code of conduct influenced not only Japanese ideology, but some extent helped the West in a time of need. To discover how these ancient warriors helped politicians to unite people and get them to believe in the ‘land of the rising sun.’ Japan’s quest to find a footing began in a time characterised by Western powers wishing to expand, especially Britain. One significant event to mention in this context is the Opium Wars which served as a warning for not only China but also Japan that if you do not bow down to the Empire and what she wishes you will pay greatly. Another interest occurrence to mention is that off Commander Matthew Perry and America’s wish to trade with Japan. These major trends made Japan very much aware of the fact that they need to modernise and colonise quickly to keep up with the West. But before they could role out a plan on modernisation the elite needed the backing of the people. And, these folks needed to be ‘loyal, obedient, and willing to make many sacrifices for the good of the nation.’ (Narroway 2008: 64) In order to achieve this, wish they used the image of the honourable samurai to ‘promote and empower their nationalistic ideology.’ (Narroway 2008: 64) Moreover, when examining the influence these ancient service men had on the development of Japan’s self-image not only domestically but internationally as well context is key or as

Miss Lisa Narroway Goes on to Explain

In order to demonstrate the significance of the samurai symbol, it is necessary to place the creation and promotion of the samurai symbol into the wider context of modern Japan. During this period, nationalism was articulated as a state-led ideology, requiring the population to conform exclusively to ‘official’ ideas regarding national identity. Such ideas emphasised national uniqueness and strength, incorporating notions such as the ‘family nation’ and a mission in Asia into the overall official vision. Through promoting such ideas as part of its ideology, the Japanese state aimed to unify, indoctrinate and to mobilise the national population. (Narroway 2008: 64-65) When constructing these men of honour, they looked for a figure steeped in history but only focused on the positive aspects of this character. Granted this, the elite needed to create a code of conduct which focused heavily on loyalty, self-sacrifice, compassion, honour etc called bushido. The closest European equivalent would be the code of chivalry the knights lived by. And, of this code of conduct a scholar by the name of Nukariya Kaiten writes:

Bushidō, or the code of chivalry, should be observed not only by the soldier on the battlefield but by every citizen in the struggle for existence. If a person be a person and not a beast, then he must be a Samurai – brave, generous, upright, faithful and manly, full of self-respect and self-confidence, at the same time full of the spirit of self-sacrifice. (Nukariya 2005: 50)

The quote above put forth the notion that one should see the samurai being seen as this ideal of how individuals should not only interact with one another but also how one should create a meaningful existence. Such a notion plays well into what Narroway mentions about creating a nation that is unique and strong. These core values also helped the elite mobilise the population overall because they had a common course or rather a common idol. But before this could become a reality the elite needed the peasants to agree on this being the way forward thus, they fabricated a figure with morally rights values. In the period between the Meiji Period (1867-1912) to the Second World War (1939-45) nationalistic politicians used several nationalistic symbols to promote their ideology. On the contrary, in the West, the values of the samurai ‘seem to fill the void of Western ideology and recover the tainted morality of white violence.’ (Shin 2010: 1077)

Hence, one may put forth the argument that whites used bushido as a way to justify the mistreatment of minorities. Such a justification is especially prevalent in Edward Zwick’s film The Last Samurai (2003) and some may even go the extreme by the claim that the reality he presents on screen around the samurai is fabricated. This invented reality surrounding the samurai is a way for the film director to promote a pro-American tale in an attempt to white wash history. Then, the surroundings of the samurai as presented on screen has become a way for white America to voice their wish to return to a time where her hands were not stained by blood from the mass murder of native Americans and society were collectivistic rather than individualistic. Given such a narrative, the film and its protagonist push an agenda which makes the viewer get the false belief that life was better in the ‘good old days.’ By the same token, the film celebrates the notion of white heroism by making the audience aware of this new superior culture yet still manage to examine it through the view of the white man. In continuation of this notion of the white man’s gaze and how this may have influenced the way, Westerners perceive the samurai. Before taking a more nuanced look at the white man’s gaze it may be helpful to touch on what Franc Fanon means by ‘ontology being unattainable in a colonized and civilized world.’ (Fanon 1952: 109)

In short, Fanon is of the opinion that no matter what colour your skin is you are still defined by how the white man perceives you. Zwick’s film plays well into this notion and especially the way he presents the samurai to his audience. In the manner, one can argue this is the case for every foreign historical figure presented to a white audience no matter the visual media.

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