The Art of the Samurai

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The art and splendour of these strong and noble ‘knights’ of Japan lives on. With armoured costumes and weaponry, the Samurai were renowned for their chivalrous code of conduct, Bushido, known as ‘the way of the warrior’.

The military elite of feudal Japan, Samurai, were feared, respected, and honoured. They became a ruling class of their own and reigned supreme nearly 400 years ago.

Yet their legacy continues to stand tall, playing an important role in the Japanese psyche, culture, and history. Their suits of armour, complete with expressive and artistically-designed face masks, remain – seemingly possessed by the spirits of their past owners – an enduring tribute to these heroic men.

Alongside their impressive costumes, the Samurai – also called ‘Bushi’, roughly translated as ‘fighting knights’ – left behind a code of conduct, which became synonymous with this legendary clan of warriors. The ‘Bushido’ was devoutly followed, providing a backbone to their lives; it was literally ‘the way of the warrior’.
 

A Unique Philosophy

Borne out of a fusion of Buddhism and Shintoism, Bushido instilled the value of loyal obedience to one’s master, until death. In terms of the Japanese dictionary definition of Bushido, this ‘unique philosophy spread through the warrior class’ as an unwritten code of moral principles, which grew and evolved organically over the course of centuries.

Although ‘unwritten’, Bushido’s seven main virtues are considered to be: Courage, ‘Yu’; Benevolence, ‘Jin’; Respect, ‘Rei’; Honesty, ‘Makoto’; Honour, ‘Yo’; Loyalty, ‘Chu’; and Justice (or Rectitude), ‘Gi’.
The code seems as poetic as their way of life – with unwavering fidelity to the emperor and feudal lords, the Samurai were dedicated to living with honour, even if it meant fighting to the death, armed with well-honed skills and deadly weapons.
 

Weapons of the Samurai

By the Edo period in Japan (1603-1868), the katana, or ‘samurai sword’, was the weapon of choice. According to the Bushido, the katana is the Samurai’s ‘soul’. They were taught to name their precious katana blades as if they were living entities.

The son of a Samurai was traditionally given his first sword at birth; a simple charm sword with a dull edge. Upon turning 13 years old, a ceremony called ‘Genbaku’ was held, giving the male child his first real sword and armour, as well as an adult name, completing the transition to Samurai. Other weapons of the Samurai included a ‘yari’ (spear) and a ‘wakizashi’ – a small dagger, which was kept under his pillow in case of unexpected attack, or used to honourably commit suicide, ‘seppuku,’ a ritual disembowelment.

In later years, from the 1570s onward, cannons became a commonplace weapon of war. Samurai would also carry guns, though it might seem contrary to the popular image of sword-wielding warriors. These guns and cannons were the reality of the last great battle of the Samurai – the 1614–1615 campaign in Osaka.
 

The Art of War

The Samurai played a crucial role in this bloody and violent conflict, which took place during an epic siege at a castle in Osaka, Japan.

Centuries later, an antique screen depicting this battle hangs in the Osaka Castle museum, reminding visitors of the might of the Samurai. It was this battle which led to the ultimate destruction of the Toyotomi clan, rivals to Tokugawa Ieyasu - the ‘shogun’ (a military commander). Ieyasu sent his army of 200,000 Samurai to surround the castle in December of 1614.

Facing off at ‘Ozakajo’, Osaka’s Castle, it was the final month of this fight which was illustrated on the painted screen, as commissioned by a feudal baron who supported Ieyasu and was proud to commemorate this victory, which unified a nation. With guns, arrows and swords in their arsenal, the antique screen also gives insight into the warfare of this period, including gruesome beheadings and hand-to-hand combat.

Ultimately, Osaka Castle became weakened by the 300 cannons blasting its outer walls, along with the onslaught of another 200,000 Samurai sent to finish off the Toyotomi clan. The castle fell on June 3, 1615, and Toyotomi Hideyori, the local ruler, committed seppuku following the dishonour of his defeat. Meanwhile, the decapitated heads of Hideyori’s officers, and his eight-year-old son, were brought to Tokugawa Ieyasu as trophies. Ultimately, the Tokugawa family ruled Japan as shoguns for over two-and-a-half centuries.
 

Abolition

The Samurai had served their masters well, and become an integral part of life in Japan. However, as the country became peaceful and the Emperor was restored to power, the Samurai would eventually be abolished in 1876.

The Emperor took the name Meiji, moving his court to Edo (Tokyo), where he re-established the Imperial government, ending the reign of the military Shogunate, with a goal of overhauling the feudal system. With this, the Emperor dismantled the Samurai class and formed a new centralised national army, which was open to all Japanese people. The country was restructured into prefectures and the Samurai no longer had power over the land.

Lastly, in 1876, the wearing of swords was outlawed – the final nail in the coffin of the Samurai. While the families remained, they no longer had a position, land, or even swords. It was over.
 

Samurai Forever

Yet, the people of Japan would not soon forget these honourable heroes of the past. Following their demise, there was a surge in literature about the Samurai, which spread to the West as their imagery became romanticised in books and films. Now tourists from around the world can marvel at the treasured and preserved armour, swords, and artefacts of the Samurai generation. For instance, at Ozakajo’s museum, the famous antique screen may be viewed in all its glory, in addition to a miniature model battlefield featuring an army of Samurai in the heat of Osaka’s great battle.

Those who like to travel will find much more at Japan’s many other historic sites – including Nijo Castle in Kyoto, which was a palace of the last Tokugawa shogun, and a filming location of the Tom Cruise movie The Last Samurai.

Moreover, Himeji Castle in Himeji, the most visited castle in Japan, has a similar past to Ozakajo. Himeji was seized from Toyotomi Hideyoshi (father of Hideyori) by none other than Tokugawa Ieyasu, following the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600. The nine-year expansion project that followed, at Ieyasu’s behest, created the impressive fortress that visitors flock to today. Thus, through the inspiring art and history of the Samurai shared in these castles and museums across Japan, the mythic legacy of these noble warriors continues to live on.

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