Five things you might not have known about the samurai

Unless you’re a real enthusiast, you might not have known these facts about Japan’s warrior class.

1. Many samurai never saw battle.
In the early centuries of the feudal period there was frequent warfare among the lords of the samurai. But during the Edo period (1615-1868) Japan was, for the most part, stable and peaceful. During this period some samurai paraphernalia was more ceremonial than functional. The sword guard at right, which was made in the 1600s, reflects this trend. Sword guards were designed to protect the hand that held the sword. While an openwork sword guard like this one might keep the hand from sliding down the blade, it does leave the hand more exposed than was usual in earlier examples.

2. Some samurai enjoyed playing a game of fragrances.
Reminiscent of the perfume apparatus described by the French decadent writer Joris-Karl Huysmans in his novel A Rebours (Against the Grain), the incense game often involved a dizzying array of fragrances. Guests would bring their own incense (mixtures of pulverized aromatic woods and animal scents, kneaded with honey and other substances) and the group would try to identify the aromas and decide which it liked best.

The appreciation of fragrance originated in Buddhist ceremonies; it was transmitted to Japan in the sixth century, and thereafter this aesthetic pursuit became popular in aristocratic social occasions, outside of any religious context.

Shown is an incense game box and implements from the 1700s. Made of lacquered wood with sprinkled metalic powder, silver, bronze, and mica, it includes fire tools, box, braziers, and a tray of mica plates.

3. Many objects cherished by the samurai were made in faraway places
While we usually associate the samurai with a distinctly Japanese aesthetic, the samurai loved exotic items, not just from elsewhere in East Asia but from distant locations in South and Southeast Asia as well. Such objects were often modified or refunctioned to work in the Japanese cultural context. Several examples, such as this sixteenth-century Vietnamese teabowl. appear in the exhibition Lords of the Samurai.

4. Some fierce warriors were also Zen Buddhists
AAM blogger Nico commented on the connection between the samurai and Zen in a previous post. Miyamoto Mushashi (1584-1645), probably the most famous of all samurai swordsmen and the author of The Book of Five Rings, spent his later years making Zen paintings such as this image of Bodhidharma, the first patriarch of Zen Buddhism (a detail is shown). Bodhidharma’s expression suggests the intensity of his concentration.

Musashi perfected the Niten Ichi style of swordsmanship, in which a long and a short sword are used together. Like many other samurai whose lords died in the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600, Musashi became a masterless samurai, or ronin. As a wandering ronin he is said to have fought sixty-eight duels without being defeated. He spent his final years as a sword instructor in the service of Hosokawa Tadatoshi (1586-1641), and during this period he painted many works on Zen themes.

5. But some members of the samurai class were Christians

The bell at right is thought to have been cast for Hosokawa Tadaoki (1563-1645) in honor of his wife, Hosokawa Gracia (1563-1600). Gracia was captured by the forces of an opposing daimyo. To prevent her husband from wavering from his duty because of her captivity, she ordered her servant to kill her.

Gracia was a Christian, and when peace finally came, Tadaoki built a Christian church in her honor. He ordered a large bell marked with the Hosokawa crest to be cast for the church. But in 1613 the shogun banned Christianity from Japan, and shortly thereafter the church was destroyed. Three hundred years later this bell was discovered hidden in a corner of a tower in the Hosokawa castle.

11 Responses to “Five things you might not have known about the samurai”

  1. Shalom  on May 29th, 2009 at 7:08 pm

    This is a very interesting topic, particularly point 4. I’m surprised that the honorable DT Suzuki didn’t bring up the issue of the conflict between the first of the five Buddhist precepts (Do not kill), and one of the most fundamental jobs of the samurai, to kill on the command of one’s master, without the slightest hesitation. This is far from a trivial conflict; rather, it strikes me as a diametrical opposition.

    Of course, almost all of the qualities that typify Zen practice and life (except for the not killing part) would benefit a samurai, and it makes sense that samurai would draw from this deep reserve, but I question whether the life of the samurai and that of the Zen practitioner are fundamentally, philosophically, practically compatible.

  2. xensen  on May 29th, 2009 at 10:09 pm

    I suppose that sometimes strange paths can lead to unexpected places. Maybe it’s a little, in a way, like Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock, where the atheist is portrayed as closer to the believer than is the agnostic (though I doubt this would be Susuki’s reasoning).

  3. Carlos  on June 20th, 2009 at 9:37 pm

    A minor comment on this piece is that Miyamoto Musashi, “the most famous samurai of all”, was never a samurai. He was Bushi (warrior) who never had a master, so in other words, he never “served” as the word samurai implies. Musashi did live as a guest of honor for several “lords”, including the Hosokawa, but he always refuse to be a retainer to anyone. Miyamot’s martial arts lifestyle embodies many of the samurai traits, but not all.

  4. xensen  on June 23rd, 2009 at 8:58 am

    Thank you, Carlos. You are onto a distinction that would be made according to the Japanese usage of these terms.

    My understanding is as follows. The word samurai is used differently in English from the way it is used in Japanese. In the original Japanese usage, samurai were lower-level members of the warrior class. Miyamoto was a bushi, but in English the word samurai is applied to warriors of any status — even though this would be incorrect in strict Japanese usage.

    A lower-level warrior/samurai who lost his master would become an unemployed warrior (ronin), but would not cease to become a member of the warrior/samurai class. Of course, at the end of his life Miyamoto served under the Hosokawa, so he was not always masterless.

  5. coreylynn  on June 27th, 2009 at 6:17 pm

    Does anyone know anything about women in samurai roles?

  6. edeb  on June 28th, 2009 at 11:58 pm

    Hi coreylynn,

    I am not sure if you are asking about samurai women in film roles or in history? I will assume the latter. There are some stories of heroic samurai women (daughters, wives, sisters of samurai). Two in particular come to mind from the present exhibition.

    One is about Hosokawa Gracia, the Christian wife of the warrior Hosokawa Tadaoki who preferred to die rather than be taken hostage by her husband’s opponent. A bell for a church commissioned in her memory is in the exhibition.

    Another famous story of a samurai woman is depicted in a painting in the exhibition. It shows Tomoe Gozen in full armor on horseback carrying off the head of one of her enemies. Here is her story on wikipedia

    Also, check out this article on women warriors of Japan. In it the author questions whether Tomoe Gozen was a real person.

    This is not the most definitive answer to your question, but may get you pointed towards some interesting reading. Whether she was real or not, Tomoe’s story was hugely popular, appearing in the Tales of the Heike and in countless woodblock prints and paintings–see the images that came up in a Google image search.

  7. sri mudrabear  on July 1st, 2009 at 1:20 am

    As for the initial comment on the connection between samurai ethics and Zen, two points should be made:

    One is the famous koan where Nansen kills a cat when no monk could answer his challenge. This suggests that, in the right situation there is a “nondual” kind of killing that is in accord with the Zen interpretation of Buddhist precepts.

    The other point is that, whether or not such a reading is justified, it was certainly used widely during the second world war to add a spiritual and ethical dimension to combat. Most American Zen students do not realize that some of the major teachers who brought Zen to the West in the postwar teacher were either influenced by or were themselves monks who spoke out openly in favor of the war and provided spiritual ideological support for killing. Suzuki himself was quite a nationalist. This sobering tale is well told in Brian Victoria’s book Zen at War.

  8. Kaz  on July 30th, 2009 at 9:13 pm

    One of the most interesting and crucial aspects of the samurai was SHUDO. According to writer Ihara Saikaku it would have been asked why a man did NOT have a male lover. Shudo (or male/male love) was considered “The Flower of the Samurai Spirit”. It began to erode with the opening of Japan to the west and the rejection of the Edo period that consumed much of the Meiji Restoration.

  9. Jojo  on October 29th, 2009 at 4:35 pm

    This is a very interesting post. I love reading and watching about samurai. I dreamed to be a samurai warrior like Azumi. Japanese culture is really interesting.

  10. Dave  on January 25th, 2010 at 10:50 pm

    Wow. Number 2 definitely caught me off guard. I always have an image of warriors being sweaty and stinky, so the appreciation of a fine incense may just make sense! Thanks for this info. I’m glad I stumbled here.

  11. Samurai  on April 8th, 2012 at 9:52 pm

    99.9999% of Samurai were Zen Buddhists. Yet, the article suggests some were Christian. This kind of misinformation is sickening. One lone exception does not equate with the majority. The way Buddhism is always misrepresented in the West is sickening …. nos always reduced and no Buddhists can stand up as they are all weak. Zen Buddhism is about being strong and tough like Samurai warriors, its not about being weak like American hippies.

Leave a Reply