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Samurai Facts vs. Samurai Myths and Legends


 When you think of the samurai and his swords, do you think of strong, brave, compassionate warriors who felt strong loyalty to their lords? Were their samurai swords the most feared, strongest weapons ever made? Maybe you think that samurai armies were the strongest and most-feared. Or perhaps you’ve read that the samurai has always been a part of Japanese society and culture. If you have been told that bushido was always the code that every samurai was expected to follow, you’re going to learn differently. Think about what you have learned about Ronin. Were the Ronin carrying out ancient, noble traditions? Or did they turn to a life of crime? Does your knowledge tell you that all of these samurai were noble? Think again. Here are some myths and facts about the samurai and their valuable, prized swords.


Myth #1: Samurai and Ninjas

Contrary to popular belief, the samurai have never considered ninjas to be in the same warrior class. Between about 600 A.D. and 900 A.D., ninja skills were taught by Chinese monks to the Japanese. Once the Japanese ninjas or shinobi learned guerilla warfare or ninjitsu, they began using these skills for less-than-honorable means.


The samurai class despised the shinobi class because of the dishonorable methods they used to meet their fighting goals. Still, the samurai of that period needed the shinobi because of the lengths the shinobi would go to as they worked to complete their work. The shinobi were hated, too, because they didn’t have the same level of fighting skills. Instead, they relied on deceptions and tricks to get away when they needed to, even though the shinobi also fought with martial arts swords.


Myth #2: Seppuku and Honor

“Seppuku” is the samurai practice of committing suicide. Popular myth would have you believe that the samurai committed suicide so he could preserve his honor at the end of a battle that ended badly. Yes, it is true that the samurai would commit suicide; the reason often was not so they could preserve their honor. Instead, they did so in order to keep from being killed by their enemies.


Myth #3: The 17th and 19th Centuries Produced the Most Skilled Samurai

This myth is definitely untrue. This period in Japan’s history was actually the worst for the samurai. There were no wars to be fought. With no wars, the samurai could not practice their fighting skills, which deteriorated. In this time of peace, the shogunate offered the samurai positions in Japanese government. While the samurai were likely glad to have employment, they also missed their days of fighting and glory.


It was during this time period that the samurai began studying, becoming scholars of poetry, calligraphy, flower arranging and the tea ceremony. Because of this time of culture, the Bushido code was written down for the very first time.


Myth #4: Samurai Depended Only on Their Swords

The samurai depended wholly on his katana (sword) to fight. History actually reveals that the samurai relied on a range of weapons. These included short knives, bows, arrows, yari (long spears) and even cannons. The most-valued weapons were arrows and the yari.


The katana so widely associated with the samurai were passed down from grandfather, to father, to son. These swords were felt to be too expensive to be used in battle, so instead, they were preserved in the samurai’s home so they could be bequeathed to their sons.


Myth #5: Japanese Civilization Predates Western Civilization

This myth is completely false. It was only during the Asuka period, which ran from 538 A.D. to about 710 A.D. that Japanese culture and a centralized state. Compare this to the Greek civilization, which began 1,000 years before the Asuka period.


It’s true that the primitive Japanese did occupy wide swathes of what is present-day Japan. Still, the country’s prehistoric and proto-historic age lasted for quite a while longer than for other cultures. In the 5th century A.D., Japan was still in its proto-historic age while the Eastern Roman Empire was well-established. In fact, the Western Roman Empire had already risen and fallen by that time.


Myth #6: Samurai and Retreat

The myth of the samurai and retreat is just that. The samurai knew better than to stay on the battlefield when their brethren were falling and dying on the battlefield. They used their practicality to tell them when to retreat from battle. When they were doing well in battle, they stayed on the field, fighting and sometimes, attacking their opponents. When they experienced casualties, they would gather their dead and wounded, then retreat.


Myth #7: Samurai and Homosexuality

The image of the samurai is one of a masculine and macho man, attracted to females. The reality was that homosexuality was an important component of the samurai’s life. As such, it was widely and actively practiced. Called “nanshoku,” which means “the love of the samurai,” this practice was far more than just sexual. In fact, older samurai warriors entered into homosexual relationships with their younger apprentices. These relationships were both emotional and physical.


While women were viewed as vital to Japanese culture because they made it possible for the samurai to continue their family lines, many of the samurai preferred male-to-male relationships because of the emotional and physical bonds.


The practice was so widespread that, instead of being asked why a samurai had taken a young man as a lover, he would have been asked why he had not done so. This was practiced in every level of the samurai class from the most basic of warriors to the highest of the samurai lords. Nanshoku began in the 13th century, reaching its peak during the Tokugawa shogunate at the beginning of the 17th century. It declined as Japan went through unification and the warrior class’ importance went down.


Myth #8: The Ronin

“Ronin” means “leaderless samurai.” These samurai, with no lords to swear their loyalty to, became robbers and criminals. Tradition holds that the ronin, though without leaders, carried on the samurai’s noble traditions. This was not so. The Ronin became known as the Yakuza.


History suggests that, after the ronin began robbing townspeople, the machi-yokko or servants of the town, were formed to protect townspeople from the ronin.


Myth #9: The Yakuza are Descendants of the Samurai

This is not true. Beginning with the Tokugawa period, about half a million samurai were unexpectedly unemployed. While some of these samurai adjusted, joining the merchant class, others turned to crime, becoming known as the Yakuza.


Descendants of the Yakuza believe they can trace their lineage straight back to the samurai. Even though they practice Bushido, they have no link to the samurai of old.


Myth #10: Relationship of the Swords to the Samurai’s Soul

While the strongest image of the samurai was with his swords, they were not his soul. Instead, the samurai was also a highly skilled archer, especially when he fought on horseback.


In his military training, the samurai learned how to fight with swords, spears and other smaller weapons. It wasn’t until 794 A.D. to 1191 A.D. (Heian Period) that the swords became so popular for samurai soldiers.


Myth #11: Samurai Swords were the Best-Made

For their time, samurai swords were some of the best-made. When compared to swords excavated from sites in Damascus, Greece, Toledo, Spain and Solingen, Germany, they compare favorably to the Japanese swords. Viking swords also compare well, having been made in the same way as the Japanese swords.


During an archeological excavation in China, ancient swords were unearthed, showing that Chinese swords were made to a very high quality, allowing them to retain their sharp edges.


Fact #1: Meaning of Bushido

To understand Bushido, you need to understand what the word means. Broken down, the word means “samurai way of life.” “Bushi” is “warrior” or samurai and “do” is the “way of life.”


Next, “Bushido” refers to a code of ethics. Every samurai was expected to live a life of honor and bravery. They were also expected to be loyal to their lords. The highest and most important part of the code of ethics was to be free from fear. Even knowing that he could die at any moment in battle, he was expected to fight without fear or hesitation.


This translates to that warrior spirit demonstrated by so many cultures and nations. This spirit has been amply demonstrated in U.S. Marines, Vikings, Crusaders, the ancient Greeks, the Romans, the Grande Armee of Napoleon, American Indians and the Zulus.


Fact #2: The Rise of the Samurai Culture

The culture of the samurai warrior arose from the drawn-out wars over land in what became Japan. Three feuding clans (Fukiwara, Minamoto and Taira) argued over the possession of different parcels of land. Originally, the Samurai came from the different groups of warriors. As Japan came out of their proto-historical period, these warrior groups adapted, becoming more sophisticated and developing their reputation for honor, stoicism and military expertise. This took place during the Kakamura period, which began in 1192 A.D. and ended in 1333 A.D.


The warriors in the Heike Monogatari became models for those educated warriors–the samurai–of later years. In fact, the samurai ideals became the model for Japanese military men and even in the upper levels of warrior society.


Fact #3: The Artist-Warrior

Beginning in 1338 A.D. and extending through 1573 A.D., Samurai culture encouraged its warriors to become more artistic. Thus, their training came to include the highly ritualized tea ceremony and flower arranging as the samurai sought to become more balanced and refined in his life. It was during this time that Bushido was actually formalized.


In the 12th century, the Samurai were regarded as the “aristocratic warrior class.” During this time, they enjoyed membership in a class of privilege. They wore their Japanese swords and katana with pride. Because of their exalted place in society, samurai were free to kill any lower-class person who caused offense to them.


With good, there must come bad. Some samurai took part in disputes and in fighting. Some of them ignored their responsibility to be loyal and honest. Akechi Mitsuhide was one such warrior, who betrayed his lord, carrying out act after act of treachery.


Fact #4: The Edo Period and the Samurai

The Edo period, which ran from 1603 A.D. to 1867, ushered in the downfall of the samurai as a warrior culture. A period of peace lasting over two hundred years meant that the Samurai culture had become archaic, with their services no longer needed. Even so, they were still allowed to wear their samurai swords. In order to survive, however, these former samurai had to accept other kinds of employment.


Japan’s economy began growing at a fast pace. This allowed Japanese citizens to begin enjoying the finer things of life and this meant that the lifestyle of denial that the samurai had practiced for so many centuries was no longer accepted. The samurai adjusted and began to accumulate and enjoy some of these newer luxuries.


During the Meiji Restoration, which took place in 1868, the last Shogun finally resigned. Before his resignation, several unhappy samurai revolted against him, to no avail. As the new government was ushered in, new laws outlawed feudalism, which was regarded as a betrayal of the samurai. They were stripped of all of their privileges in 1871, officially bringing the Era of the Samurai to an end.


Fact #5: Samurai Also Used Bows and Arrows

Not only did the samurai use his swords to fight in battle, he also relied on other forms of battle. He fought unarmed and took part in ground fighting. He also fought from horseback. The highest ranks of samurai trained in Bujutsu, which encompassed all of these forms of fighting.


The earlier samurai warriors also fought using bows and arrows as well as their swords. This weapon allowed them to wound and kill enemies at a farther distance. In the later years of the Samurai culture, these warriors also used naginata or halberds and spears.