The word ‘samurai’ is most often associated with skilful warriors dressed in heavy armour and fighting their battles with the famous Katana or possibly the ultimate battle of skill between the samurai and his brother-in-arms the ninja or simply the warrior one meets in mass-media. The above-mentioned associations may be true, but one rarely thinks of how this honoured expert of warfare originated and how their legacy has impacted not only Japan but continue to intrigue the West do to his code of conduct called Bushido. These are the points of issue this piece of writing sets out to investigate.
Samurais (or bushi) were brutal experts of warfare in ancient Japan. These prehistoric warriors were a far cry from the honourable ones we encounter in entertainment today. The ‘true’ tale of these men of honour begins with forced enlistment in the army. The forced enlistment was a part of the Chinese military model the Japanese has adapted at the time. When these servicemen had completed their deployment, they often did not return home but rather settled in an area between the battlefield and their homes since such areas could offer them more substance. Then the Heian period (794-1185) rolls around, a time where the Emperor wished to expand his power which created a great problem since the loyalty and skill of his servicemen were dwindling. But the Emperor had the perfect solution and that was enlisting the help of reginal clans. In turn, this solution backfired as these clan’s gained more influence themselves. The clan’s influence was gathered by offering the ‘homeless’ farmers cheaper land to cultivate and no forced enlistment in the army. Such a shift in power did not appease the magistrate in Kyoto and it also resulted in the clan chiefs needing body guards and individuals to protect their land. Many scholars argue that it is at this point we see the samurai being formed. But before, the samurai can be fully formed as a character, they needed to perfect the martial art skills. In outset of Heian period, we see these chiefs being ruled by a shugo, who were often distant relatives of the Emperor. When the term of these shugo were over they were meant to return but instead they choose to stay and pass on their knowledge to their sons. The system of the shugo would later morph into the daimyo. Slowly, the samurais began brushing shoulders with the gentry though arranged marriage and brutal intimidation tactics. From the rise of the Kamakura period (1185-1333) to the closure of the Takugawa period (1600-1867), the samurai has evolved from hired outlaws who protected the daimyo to skilled puppeteers who controlled the Emperor and thus Japan through a military dictatorship. The dictatorship of the Minamoto started in 1185 when they established a new government (or bakafu). For about 8 years the new government did not have a head but in 1892 Mr Minamoto Yoritomo was to become shôgun. With the introduction to firearms by the Portuguese, during the Ashikaga period (1336-1467), some academics propose that the skills, tactics and even the core values of the samurai suffered significantly. On top of this, the samurai was challenged by the warrior of the shadows and his fellow serviceman the ninja. During the Edo period, one sees a significant increase in ronims and samurais without han in general. At the end of the Edo period, one sees the indecisiveness and unlike samurai behaviour of the shôgun and the bakufu lead to a huge backing of the slogan sonno joi and the overall recognition of the Emperor being the true ruler of Japan and a desire for him to be reinstated. Next up is the Azuchi-Momoyama period (1568-1600), where the samurai would be honoured by being allowed to carry a sword exclusively and thus gaining the affectionate name ‘two sword man’. From the Meiji period (1868-1912) onwards, the samurai was significant no more which meant that he was reduced to a mere tourist attraction, a reminder of a better time, and simply a revenue source for the Japanese.
When Japan started her journey to discover herself was at a time where Western colonial powers were at their absolute height. Due to the state the world was in Japanese leaders faced many a difficult decision when establishing ‘the Land of the rising son’ as the ‘great nation’, which Westerners are fascinated with to this day. In her search for a muse, both globally and domestically, it quickly became clear that she needed to modernise, industrialise, militarise and most importantly colonise in order to survive in an arena where she may need to clash with imperial giants such as Britain. In order to support this plan of modernisation they needed a population which was ‘loyal, obedient and willing to make many sacrifices for the good of the nation’. And, the elite created the samurai in order ‘to promote and empower the people’.
On another note, when discussing his importance for the creation of Japan’s self-image context is key. 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.
When it comes to the creation of this honourable warrior, the state elite wanted a figure steeped in history and had a code of conduct resembling that of the ancient night of Europe, thus bushidô was born. Bushido, or the code of chivalry, should be observed not only by the soldier in 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 mainly full of self-respect and self-confidence, at the same time full of the spirit of self-sacrifice.
In the quote above one can see the samurai being promoted as the ideal of how individuals should interact with one another and the core values on which they should create a meaningful existence. At the time, this ideal was part of everyday national discourse. In the period between the Meiji Restoration (1867-1912) and the Second World War (1939-45), Japanese politicians made a conscious choice to use several nationalistic symbols, including the Emperor, to push there ideology, In Japan this may well be the case but in the West ‘Bushido seemed to fill the void of Western ideology and recover the tainted morality of white violence’. The use of Bushido to promote or at least justify violence towards minorities is especially prevalent in Edward Zwick’s ‘The Last Samurai’ (2003) and some may even goes as far as to claim that the reality he creates on screen around the samurai is fabricated in order to present an pro-American story and basically white washing history. So, in short, Zwick’s depiction of the samurai is simply a way of voicing white America’s wish to return to a time where her hands were not bathed in blood, aka the mass murder if the native americans, and industrialism has not happened. Given this narrative, the movie pushes an agenda which tells viewers that they should return to a ‘the good old days’. In the same fashion, it celebrates white heroism by making the viewer aware of this other culture and its superiority but still shows it from the view of the white man. In continuation of this, it may be interesting to take a look at the white man’s gaze and how this may have influenced the way westerners see the samurai. According to Fanon, “ontology is made unattainable in a colonized and civilized world”. When Mr Fanon argues that “ontology is made unattainable”, he is simply of the opinion that whites chose what you are no matter if you are African or Asian. And, this argument seems to ring true when it comes to the way Mr Zwick present the samurai to his audience. It seems the be the same case for every figure presented to a western audience no matter the media.