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The Ancient Japanese Samurai Warriors

samurai

Samurai Warriors

Samurai, both in Western popular culture and in the historical mythology of Japan, occupy powerful roles as sages, warriors, and protectors. Their lineage, which ended in the early modern era in Japan, is long and well-documented, and it splits at different times into different well-worn social and spiritual practices. Samurai warriors are both figures of war and figures of peace; they are both practitioners of violent warfare and of deep contemplative practices. Samurai lived to serve their lords, and they were in that sense images of perfect fealty, but they were also servants of philosophical and martial discipline, and in that sense, were fidelitous primarily to their own self-discipline. Samurai are figures of wonder for Westerners precisely because of these double roles, and they impress many of us (as historical figures) for their physical, intellectual, and spiritual dedication to things that are alien to most of our lives.

In the course of history, some groups of people leave such deep imprints on a culture that their impact is never fully lost. They effect such great and grand changes in a society that they are the objects of adoration not only in their own time, but in the generations that follow, and perhaps indefinitely. Samurai are one of those groups.

One of the things that is remarkable about Samurai is that they were both bonded to each other through centuries by shared commitments, while also existing as a heterogeneous group, with various figures at various times serving various ends (and doing so with sometimes quite different methods). In every sense, the unity of the Samurai, and much of their power, came from this internal difference, and their struggle to maintain relevant in the face of coming modernity may have been in part a matter of their not being able to satisfy all the different forces at work in their constitution.

bushiThe birth of the Bushi

Samurai are most often, in Japanese, referred to by the name “Bushi.” By around 1200, however, this term and the term “Samurai” were synonymous. The history of the Samurai, then, is quite long, and rooted in the feudal traditions of Japan (traditions which, unlike much of Europe, continue to affect the lives of the Japanese, even if so only in spirit).

Samurai were warriors, but they did not fight aimlessly. They also did not fight for themselves or for the gain of land. They were noblemen and officers of the feudal era in Medieval Japan — serving their lords and fighting for whatever causes their lords deemed. This is not like the commitment that, for instance, an American Army Ranger makes to the American government. That commitment—the contemporary commitment to a military—is rooted in individuality. The military person of the contemporary, post-feudal world fights because they are a part of what they are fighting for. It is in a sense for their gain—for the gain of their country, which they are nationalistically connected to.

But the commitment of a Samurai to his lord was different. He did not fight for himself, nor for the gain of his nation. He fought for his lord because that was what Samurai did. It was for no reason other than the honor of fighting for something more powerful than you, in a sense for no reason other than the commitment to fight itself. When a person is fighting for their country, they are fighting for their livelihood. When a person is fighting for nothing but honor, they are fighting for a spiritual and ethical commitment.

This is the birth of the Bushi—the commitment to spirituality that undergirds martial law. The way of the Bushi—called “bushido”—was the martial art of the Samurai, and it was more than mere physical training.

Bushido

While Bushido is more or less a purely historical concept (and one that we do not know enough about to fully understand) it is hugely impactful. Modern martial arts such as Jui-Jitsu, Aikido, Iaido, and Kendo are all directly descended from Bushido. And like their predecessors, they are concerned with more than simply the means to injure one’s opponent.

Bushido was the way of the Samurai, and in that sense, is carried with it more than physical methods and practices. It was impacted greatly by Buddhist traditions, and instilled a spiritual and religious commitment in Samurai warriors. The Samurai were predominantly practitioners of Buddhism (and sometimes Chinese Confucianism), and Japanese Buddhism, or Zen Buddhism, formed a large part of their daily life.

Zen

Zen was, for the Samurai, more than a religious practice, it was a full way of life. It was so deeply ingrained into even their martial practices (a tradition that continues in contemporary martial arts such as Aikido) that some Samurai even found themselves unable to fight for having discovered the spiritual necessity of peace. This meant, for those Samurai, certain death on the battlefield, which according to myth was accepted and even welcomed.

Zen meditationIn Zen, focused is placed not on the attainment of Nirvana or enlightenment, but on the simple activity of living in the immediate world. This world, and all of its imperfection, is accepted and enjoyed, and the aim is to cultivate a state of meditative peace that follows one around in everything they do. This may seem antithetical to such a martial-oriented tradition as Samurai fighting, but in fact they seemed to see it as part of the very same process. By committing themselves to their training, to their meditation, to their loyalty, and sometimes to the violence of Samurai battles, they were committing themselves to a spiritual awakening—discovering the ability to accept everything that crossed their paths by honing the ability to train and focus on that world. In this sense, any commitment at all is a spiritual commitment, regardless of how violent.

The wonder of Samurai warriors is undoubtable, and it will be the stuff of legend for generations more to come. From their martial practices to their spiritual journeys, they are in every sense timeless.

Steve

I'm Steve D'Agostino, founder of Martial Arts Weapons and Training. Thanks for visiting and reading my article! I hope you enjoyed it.

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  • hong

    Very interesting, I didn’t know what samurai warrior were, now I have a better understanding of it. I had no idea that they did not fight for themselves or for the gain of land, I thought all warriors fight for either gaining of something or for themselves. Thank you for the interesting article.

    • kungfuninja

      Yeah, Samurai were all about honor to their lords. They could be violent when need be, but they truly do embody the spirit of the arts side of martial arts!

  • Medical Marijuana Commissary

    Being a history buff, especially of ancient cultures and their practices, this is a great read. I knew there had to be a connection to the various present day forms of martial arts, but I was not aware of the great influence by Samurai warriors. Very interesting for sure.

    • kungfuninja

      Yeah, I think the Samurai are fascinating. As a student of bujutsu, I’m fortunate to get to learn how they actually fought. But the influence on culture as a whole is really impressive!

  • Samy K

    As a martial arts practitioner in Taekwondo, I have always been fascinated with the way of the Samurai and their character of being honorable, respectful, obedient, trustful and sincere. Through humility, I do not say one art is better than another art and I prefer to learn martial arts as a philosophy in the different cultures. It takes both the physical and mental discipline to be a true warrior; you cannot have one or the other, this is the balance needed to be in a harmonious state. I know that for a samurai their loyalty was to their lord and/or emperor but my question is was there a time where one leader was not just and the samurai, through their ethics, ever questioned the orders to be taken? Not every human being is perfect and there are and will always be flaws. What would the Samurai do in that instance? Was there not a standard code of conduct where even if a person of higher status broke, the Samurai would need to act in the best interest of true justice? I am sure there were cases throughout the history of medieval Japan. In order to be honorable, one has to be just and to be just means to be and act truthful.

    Sam

    • kungfuninja

      Great comment! It was not uncommon for Samurai to leave their masters in favor of another who was just, especially with the rise of the Shinobi, or ninja. With the ninja, however, it was common for them to change their loyalties for better pay, but that happened later as some of the Samurai scruples began to become muddied. You are absolutely right about learning different arts, as well.

      Have you seen my post on the supposed “best” martial art? http://martialartsweaponstr.ipage.com/the-best-martial-art-for-self-defense-does-it-matter

      • Samy K

        Yes, I have heard of the Shinobi or ninja but are they not just assassins? When one is hired to assassinate someone then that is not honor or just. Even when Samurai leave their master in favor of another, is it for good intentions or other? You mentioned the Shinobi, are they former Samurai? It is very difficult of a topic as the human race is not perfect and being just and honorable in one sense may be be in another’s perspective. It shows by the battles between different houses during medieval Japan. I have taken a look at your other post and I do agree with you as there is no ‘best’ martial art as each one has its strengths and weaknesses. Even Bruce Lee created an art where he took the best of different arts and; hence, Jeet Kune Do was born. Today, they have Mixed Martial Arts where practitioners user different techniques from different styles.

        • kungfuninja

          Some of the ninja were indeed assassins, and many of them gave up their code for money and power. But yes, many of the ninja were originally Samurai who found new masters. They were originally spies and spec ops, used for covert operations and intel gathering and were later hired as security detail or to carry out robberies and assassinations. You are right, we as people are not perfect, and neither were the Samurai. They were people with desires, as well, and some of them were willing to use their skills in less than honorable ways to get what they wanted. As a group, they were something to be admired, but they were trained killers, after all!

  • Justin Chavez

    I have been fascinated with the Samurai or Bushi (newly learned word) for a s long as i could remember.

    When i was a kid we all pretended to be Bushi and this was something that we did often. To be fearless if only in pretend was something that was time well spent.

    As i grew older to the age i am now this admiration to the Samurai has evolved to an understanding that i must treat myself with the utmost respect.

    I find that Samurai are the least selfish of all warriors that have ever existed. The Samurai are far more than fearless warriors they stand for a list of values that is all but lost in today’s world.

    Respect, loyalty, and peace are only a few that come to mind.

    My understanding of Bushido is that this was sort of a hidden martial arts in that they used common tools that they used for work as weapons. Am i talking about the correct martial arts?

    • kungfuninja

      Bushido is more the code of the Samurai and involves much more than fighting, but yes, you are talking about the right people.

      The martial art they are known for (kind of the original MMA) is called bujutsu, which means “the art of war”, and this system consists of all different styles of fighting, from jujitsu/aiki jujitsu for ground fighting to traditional strikes, loads of different weapons based on what they had available to them (often tools, yes), and other technical skills for fighting in different situations.

      With the increased use of espionage, this led to the rise of the Shinobi, or ninja, who (at least in the beginning) were generally Samurai who hired themselves out as spies or assassins (ninjutsu is not a martial art, believe it or not – that is the system of spy skills, or the art of invisibility).

      I am very fortunate to get to study these systems today to add to my kung fu repertoire, and I’ve got to say – it’s so much fun!

  • Charles Arias

    Very nice indeed. Samurais were indeed a different kind of individuals, loyal all the way to the death. We have a lot to learn about this individuals. The one thing that I like the most is the self-control they were able to accomplish. It is very rare to see a person with the skill to kill anybody with a single blow and just hold that energy inside of you when the fight starts. It was a beautiful way of life, no doubt about it.

    • kungfuninja

      Agreed. They are kind of the equivalent of medieval knights in Europe. Chivalry and honor were of utmost importance to them, and they were incredibly disciplined. Fascinating people!

      • Charles Arias

        Agree. Love their culture. What do you know about the Ronin? I know general info. I love the story of this individuals as well.

        • kungfuninja

          I don’t know much about the Ronin, but you can bet I’ll be hitting the books and posting about them here soon. Thanks for the great idea!