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From the medieval epics of Akira Kurosawa to the space operas of George Lucas, the samurai have long inspired us with stories of their legendary swords and superhuman skills. Nowadays, when we think of samurai, we imagine invincible warriors like Miyamoto Musashi nimbly wielding super-sharp swords, slicing through ninja and catching blades with their bare hands.
But how much of that is actually true? To test these myths, we asked Samurai Swordsmanship authors Masayuki Shimabukuro and Carl E. Long to answer the most common questions we receive about Japanese swords. Enjoy part one of our series on samurai myths.
Samurai Myth No. 1
A good samurai sword will slice through a silk scarf that’s dropped on the blade.
Fact: The katana and other Japanese swords are designed to slice objects as the blade is pulled across the target. If an object is simply dropped on the blade, it’s very unlikely that any slicing action will occur.
This is why so many exhibitions that involve walking on swords are possible. As long as there’s no sliding action, the blade rarely cuts. If a scarf is allowed to slide across the edge, the material could be cut. This myth has been carried over from a story about a Damascus blade owned by Saladin.
Samurai Myth No. 2
A katana can chop a regular sword in half.
Fact: Any steel sword can break if it’s struck at the wrong angle. Chopping one in half, however, is highly unlikely.
Samurai Myth No. 3
In battle, Japanese swordsmen would use the edge of the blade to block their enemy’s attacks.
Fact: The edge of the blade was often used to block an opponent’s attack. However, most swordsmen would fend off an attack by launching a pre-emptive strike or receiving the attack on the side of the blade. This was preferable to blocking with the ha (cutting edge).
Japan has a history that dates back thousands of years. Scientists believe the Japanese people descended from many groups that migrated to the islands from other parts of Asia, including China and Korea. As early as 4500 B.C., the Japanese islands were inhabited by fishermen, hunters and farmers. The early culture was known as "Jomon," which meant "cord pattern." That's because the people made pottery decorated with rope-like designs. Scientists believe a caucasian race called the "Ainu" were the first inhabitants of what is now Japan. The Ainu still exist today, mostly in the northernmost islands of Japan called "Hokkaido." The next major Japanese cultural changed occured about 200 B.C. The people were known as "Yayoi." The Yayoi were mostly farmers. Scientists believe the present-day Japanese closely resemble the Yayoi in appearance and language.
War played a central part in the history of Japan. Warring clans controlled much of the country. A chief headed each clan; made up of related families. The chiefs were the ancestors of Japan's imperial family. The wars were usually about "land." Only 20% of the land was fit for farming. The struggle for control of that land eventually gave rise to the Samurai.
One of the important dates in the history of the Japanese warring class is 660 B.C. That's when, according to legend, Jimmu Tenno became head of a confederation of warlike clans. Tenno was known as "The Divine Warrior." He led his people from Kyushu to the Kinki region and conquered the people there. Tenno settled in the area of Yamato. This eventually gave rise to the Yamato dynasty and state. The leaders of Yamato believed themselves to be of divine origin...
The Japanese sword has acquired mystical significance in the wake of Samurai history, but to what extent is this image justified? This article will attempt to shatter a few myths surrounding both the use and omnipotence of the sword in the samurai arsenal. Tokugawa Ieyasu's famous remark that the sword was the 'soul of the samurai' should not be taken at face value. This was most likely a comment made reflecting the relatively peaceful years of Sekigahara (1600) to Osaka (1614) when battlefield weapons (i.e. firearms, spears and bows) were being pushed to the back of samurai life and the sword as the weapon of everyday life.
It is necessary to look at both the use and importance of other samurai weapons in relation to the sword in order to discover whether it would have been valued and utilised above all else. The comment made by Ieyasu (1543-1616) was more than likely aimed at samurai (including the lowly ashigaru) in the wake of Hideyoshi's Separation Edicts of 1587 and 1591. This edict sought to ensure that the vast armies of the Sengoku period would never be raised again; by providing a clear distinction between peasant and samurai. It should be noted that the ashigaru were not completely integrated into the samurai caste until the Edo period, forming the lower echelons thereof. As a result, I will be paying far more attention to the weapons used by the samurai, as opposed to the sohei (warrior monks) or ashigaru.
|Ii Naomasa (1561-1602) at
Sekigahara (1600), bust by
Agustín J. Rodríguez
[Author’s note: This article was first published in the French journal Figurines as "Le Samourai: un grand seigneur de guerre du Sengoku" (no. 29. [Aug.-Sept. 1999], pp. 50-53; translated by Dominique Breffort.). What appears before you is a revised and updated edition of this article, published here for the first time. AJR]
Samurai. The word conjures images of fierce oriental warriors in ornate silks, laced armour, and horn-bedecked helmets brandishing gleaming swords of near-mythical qualities. While this is not altogether a false impression, it is somewhat of a romantic and simplistic notion. The feudal Japanese warrior class is victim to the same misconceptions as its Western counterpart of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. To complicate matters are the seemingly insurmountable language barrier, and a general lack of familiarity with Oriental culture and history: the former can be worked around; the latter can be overcome.
Anything but a cursory overview of the evolution of Japanese armour is beyond the scope of an article such as this; but there are some things to look for, and perhaps even comparisons to be made with what was taking place in the West. What most think of as the "classic" samurai is in fact the early feudal Japanese warrior (a prime example is Ray Lamb's now classic Taisho) -- much as many might consider a mailed and surcoated "crusader" the prototypical European knight or man-at-arms. The Kamakura period (ca. 1186 - ca. 1333) is characterized by extremely colourful and ornately laced, albeit "boxy", armours (ô-yoroi and early dô-maru) with huge shoulder guards (sode), and helmets (kabuto) with sweeping neckguards (shikoro), adorned with imposing gilt, stylized horns (kuwagata). The Muromachi period (ca. 1334 - ca. 1572) represents a transitional period in the history of Japanese armour that roughly corresponds to a similar evolutionary parallel in Western Europe. Whereas in the latter we see a transition from mail to plate, in Japan we witness a "streamlining" of armour as it becomes more form-fitting, its components reduced in size, relatively less ornate and arguably more functional. In Europe, armour evolved in response to the changing nature of warfare; in Japan, despite an ongoing distancing from the style of warfare dominated by a mounted archer nobility and an ever-increasing diversification within the field armies, there is no overwhelming "evolutionary" pressure to simplify the harness (gusoku), save for practicality, cost, and supply. The overture to the Sengoku would place hitherto unseen demands on the armourers' craft and the nobility's purse owing to the extended time in the field and the increase in the number of forces fielded.
In June 1853, Commodore Matthew Perry of the United States Navy led a squadron of four heavily armed warships into Sagami Bay, to the Port of Uraga, just south of the Shogun's capital at Edo. What the Americans found was a technologically backward, though intricately complicated, island nation, under the rule of the House of Tokugawa, that had been isolated from the rest of the world for two and a half centuries.
Whether or not the Americans realized the far-reaching effects of their gunboat diplomacy, they now set into motion a coup de theatre which fifteen years hence would transform the conglomerate of some 260 feudal domains into a single, unified country. When the fifteenth and last Shogun, Yoshinobu Tokugawa, abdicated his rule and restored the emperor to his ancient seat of power in November 1867, Japan was well on its way to becoming an industrialized nation, rapidly modernizing and Westernizing in a unique Japanese sense.
There is an old tale that is told in Japan called In the Land of the Rising Sun. "Go! And may prosperity attend thy dynasty, and may it, like heaven and Earth, endure for ever." With this command, the sun god Amaterasu sent her grandson Ninigi to rule over Japan. Ninigi descended from the heavens, but he only stayed on the island, and left it up to his grandson Jimmu to fulfill Amaterasu's wish. Jimmu journeyed to the main island of Honshu, where he became the firs emperor of the Land of the Rising Sun.
This tale of Japan's beginning is related in the Nihon Shoki, or Chronicles of Japan. Ever since the 700s when the story was set down, Japan's many clans have placed themselves under the reign of an imperial family, who claimed to trace its origins back to Jimmu. This dynasty founded a long lasting capital in Nara, which drew its inspiration from China. Earlier, the Japanese court had used a Chinese model for a series of political reforms known as the Taika, which was aimed at strengthening the central government...
“A man exists for a generation, but his name lasts to the end of time.”
(The quotations cited in this article are from the Hagakure (“Hidden Leaves”) a book of aphorisms by the samurai Yamamoto Tsunetomo, published in 1716, unless otherwise noted).
When you look the artifacts on display at the Cranbrook Institute of Science, remember that each has its own unique story. The practicalities of exhibition design prevent us from relating the saga of all the many wonderful items on display. This is quite aside from the time it would take you to make it through the museum were we to tell them all! So the stories sadly stay untold.
This article tells the story behind several of the artifacts from the Anthropology collection of the Cranbrook Institute of Science. We will begin with a simple description of the artifact and then let our minds range out from there to the history and culture of the people who made and used it. In this way any item, from the grandest piece of jewelry to the humblest of baskets can reveal much of the human condition.
We begin with a real showpiece: a set of Japanese “samurai” armor, made in the 17th century. Frederick Stearns, who co-founded Stearns Brothers’ Pharmacy in Detroit, purchased the armor in the latter part of the 1800’s. He donated it to the Detroit Arts Council (later the Detroit Institute of Arts) as part of a large collection that he had amassed from around the world. It was then passed on to Cranbrook in the 1940’s...
The Bushido consisted of seven virtues. These virtues were the heart and soul of the Samurai. It was not just the way they lived their lives, it was who they were. To truly understand the Samurai, you must understand the Bushido. Although it was an unspoken code and certainly never canonized like the Bible, Bushido reached such popularity that certain elements were turned into law by during the Edo period(1603-1868). Training in the seven virtues of Bushido can make a great and positive impact on your life.
Bushido came to America in the early 1900’s via a book entitled Bushido: The Soul of Japan, or Bushido: The Spirit of the Samurai written by Nitobe Inazo, a Japanese scholar, agricultural economist, author, diplomat, and politician. The book is often criticized by scholars today for romanticizing about a chivalrous age that never existed (some Samurai were very corrupt; they were political figures and landowners with the ability to raise taxes and abused their power). The book however, is grounded in fact as most Samurai were adamant followers of Bushido. The question is “What exactly is Bushido, and how can it be applied to my modern, non-violent life?” You do not need to practice Kendo or any other martial art for that matter to follow Bushido. No one needs to be a warrior ready to sacrifice their life for their Shogun. We do however need to be fearless and ready to sacrifice our lives (metaphorically speaking) for a higher purpose. That purpose is different for each individual. Through meditation and self evaluation/discovery, we will be able to discover who we are and what that purpose is. Bushido is the pathway that will lead us to that discovery...
The life of the Samurai not only became one of discipline and military education, but a rich cultivation of the spirit and mind through the arts of writing, painting, calligraphy, philosophy, etc. It was as if a Renaissance was being experienced within their social sect. Zen provided the warrior class with personal enlightenment, polish, and refinement.
The unwritten Samurai code of conduct, known as Bushido, held that the true warrior must hold loyalty, courage, veracity, compassion, and honor as important, above all else. An appreciation and respect of life was also imperative, as it added balance to the warrior character of the Samurai. He was often very stoic with a deep and strong philosophical passion. He could be deadly in combat and yet so gentle and compassionate with children and the weak...
If you want to be a swordsman, you have your work cut out for you. For true samurai education, you must learn how to properly handle and maintain a real blade. You must master the basic body-sword mechanics and train safely and effectively in two-person and solo forms. You must study combat strategy, etiquette and the philosophy of the warrior — all elements of the samurai code of bushido. It’s a tall order, to be sure.
For guidance in this quest for samurai education, which is one of the most popular in the martial arts, Black Belt turned to Toshishiro Obata, a renowned master in samurai training who now heads the International Shinkendo Federation in Los Angeles. Before delving into the essence of samurai education and samurai training according to Toshishiro Obata, some background information will help put things in perspective...
Japanese martial arts refer to the variety of martial arts native to the country of Japan. At least three Japanese terms are used interchangeably with the English phrase "Japanese martial arts".
The usage of term "budō" to mean martial arts is a modern one, and historically the term meant a way of life encompassing physical, spiritual, and moral dimensions with a focus of self-improvement, fulfillment, or personal growth.The terms bujutsu and bugei have more discrete definitions, at least historically speaking. Bujutsu refers specifically to the practical application of martial tactics and techniques in actual combat. Bugei refers to the adaptation or refinement of those tactics and techniques to facilitate systematic instruction and dissemination within a formal learning environment.