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Old 12-03-2003, 08:00 PM   #1
Jeff Tibbetts
Dojo: Cedar River Aikikai
Location: Cedar Rapids, Iowa
Join Date: Oct 2002
Posts: 142
Who were the samurai

After reading through the link in the Last Samurai post I wondered about something. I've heard these theories before, about how the samurai were really not what we like to think that they were. I always take that at face value, and assume that it's true. From what I've read, the reality of life for a samurai warrior in the Warring States period, or any time pre-Tokugawa, really doesn't sound glorious or fun. I do tend to think it's true that all the legends and lore surrounding these warriors are largely an invention of the Tokugawa era and later. However, I was thinking about this today on a long drive, and I was trying to think of a single culture that DIDN'T glorify and make legends of their warriors, especially the ones who came before them. We still do it. Some cultures are certainly more realistic about things, but this sort of justification is perfectly natural. Ever seen a war movie? How about read a book about knights? Do we really think that everyone in WWII was a super-patriot who was there because he really thought he was fighting evil? Should we be lead to believe that knights would so quickly enter into a duel because someone sleighted their lady's honor? Some people may have certainly done things like that, but we should not assume that they were the rule or even the standard. It's no surprise to hear that a samurai may be reluctant to ritually disembowel himself without good reason. It makes it more understandable if they are doing it to pass on their estate through a legal loop-hole. They're certainly not the only group to change sides on the battlefield, although they certainly seem to be more capricious than some, despite their honor system. This honor system may have easily been added into their culture later, as a way to create harnmony in peacetime. Of course they would feel the need to call it a tradition, and be hesitant to point out that their clan affiliation has switched three times... I feel that the way that samurai are portrayed, even by most Japanese, has more to do with the Tokugawa ideals that they created than what they originally were. In the beginning, they were more like cowboys rounding up the native peoples of Japan. They have a long and rich history and evolution, as do any warriors of any culture. One of the reasons that we focus on them, perhaps, is because they were still around so recently. There is a world of difference between the "real" old-school samurai and the ones that we are more familiar with. Whatever their evolution, I would be shocked to learn that many people thought that samurai acted just as they are portrayed, especially as far back as the 14th century. Besides, most of the stories that we hear about samurai are from the later time periods where they really did have some interesting philosophy to go along with their warcrafts, so referencing the 14th century samurai in an article about the Meiji restoration is an odd choice, in my opinion.

Would anyone with a better knowledge of history here like to add anything? I do, afterall, get most of my information from books, movies, and talking to people who are my betters.

If the Nightingale doesn't sing-
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Old 12-03-2003, 08:50 PM   #2
Thalib's Avatar
Dojo: 合気研究会
Location: Jakarta Selatan
Join Date: Nov 2001
Posts: 504
I like what you wrote here Tibbetts-san. It makes perfect sense. Why poke on the Japanese while other countries are doing it.

To me, it may not be the history, but it's the heart/spirit that matters. If the myth teaches a good lesson, why not?

When I have to die by the sword, I will do so with honor.
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Old 12-06-2003, 04:52 AM   #3
Nick Simpson
Dojo: White Rose Aikido - Durham University
Location: Gateshead
Join Date: Oct 2003
Posts: 916
United Kingdom
Excellent theory Jeff, Ive read a lot of japanese history and books written by/on samurai, visited plenty of mueseums, shrines, temples and samurai graves, but I never ever thought about that. I had come to a similar conclusion that not all samurai were super honourable and would willingly kill themselves at the drop of a hat, but I hadnt thought of the possibilty of the tokugawa shogunates influence on history. Why shouldnt they have issued propaganda? plenty of dictatorships do it nowadays (Well, so do the democratic governments but thats another issue).

If anyones interested in manga, the comic book series Lone Wolf and Cub, written in the 60's by Kazuo and Koike paints a very grim depiction of samurai life. The tokugawa government in particular is focused apon quite a bit and there are a lot of amazing stories about samurai ethics and morals being put to the test, most of the stories are tragic, some are uplifting, but they all have great messages. Anyone whos interested, dark horse comics recently reprinted all 30 or so books, I heartily recommend them.

They're all screaming about the rock n roll, but I would say that it's getting old. - REFUSED.
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