Japan wasn’t always an imperial country. At one point they seamlessly blended warfare and government, and not in the military industrial complex way of today. There was a time when the warrior class ruled Japan, living by a code of honor so valiant and deep that its origin is untraceable. If there is anything to be gained from this time in history, it is that war can be a tool, a mode of protection, and those that call themselves warriors can live with honor and virtue outside of the battlefield.
The Samurai educate us on the many layers of humanity. At one moment we can be ruthless to others and ourselves, and the next we can live with honor. To the Samurai this was two sides of the same coin, as the warrior code required both a courageous death if need be and education in arts and culture. If the Samurai have anything to teach us it is that humans are extremely complex creatures capable of adhering to a code of principles no matter the cost.
THE AGE OF THE SAMURAI
The Samurai existed to fulfill an all too common need for protection. As early as the eighth century the wealthy, upper class formed the Samurai as a means of protecting their farms and land. While they enjoyed lives of luxury far from the farms and peasantry life they discovered a problem. The distance made it difficult to control and manage the day to day operations of these huge estates and farms. In addition, aristocrats didn’t have the stomach or the means to defend their land from invaders. During a time when one estate had to fear an invasion and pillaging by a nearby estate or foreigner Aristocrats appointed one man to oversea their estates personally. While the royalty governed from afar “in spirit” the land steward held all of the actual power to effect day to day life.
The men that actually ran the estates formed warrior bands that were tasked with defending and protecting the estates against invaders. These warrior bands, small militia like groups were coined Samurais, or the ones who serve, and began as simply family organizations that took up arms and defended their land during military campaigns. They then returned to their estates and took up farming once again.
It wasn’t until a few centuries later that the Samurai lost it’s blood relation and the fighting men were often tied to specific aristocrats through contracts or land grants. Eventually, as factions of lords fought and slowly destroyed each other only one ruler remained supreme. His group of warriors, his samurai, became the basis for the warrior government that was established in Japan. Headed by a shogun, or “great subduer,” this leader appointed warriors to fill positions below him, and established a hierarchy of governors and land stewards that all reported directly to him.
From 1185 to 1868 warrior governments ruled Japan. When cracks would form in one sect, weakening the samurai’s and their grip, another group of Samurais would swoop in and snatch power in a bloody war. This went on for centuries, as three different warrior governments ruled Japan at some point before an Imperial Government took over. At this point the Samurai and his code of honor became obsolete, bulldozed by more modern weaponry and thoughts of globalization.
The way of the warrior (bushido) is to find a way to die. If a choice is given between life and death, the samurai must choose death.Yamato Tsunetomo
Bushido refers to the code of honor that Samurai followed. Although they were the warrior class they adhered to a strict code of honor. One of the most important pieces of Bushido was the glamorization of war and pride in earning a warrior’s death. Bushido is a code of duty, honor, loyalty, and courage.
Bushido is also a code of self-discipline and rejection of possessions and personal gain. Bred with courage in their veins (so much so that a samurai would rather disembowel himself versus live at the hands of an enemy) and humility the Samurai was the perfect warrior machine for the wealthy: a deathly loyal soldier trained to reject personal gain and the possessions that the Shogun held so dear.
The Elite Samurais of any age were more than just the top military strategists of their time. They were also well versed in arts and culture. An Elite Samurai was expected to know both arts and arms, both renowned for his courage and skill on the battlefield and education. He is the complete man, a warrior with an educated mind. A great awareness of their own mortality was also a key component of Bushido. When one was hyper sensitive to mortality he could find a sense of honor and duty in values such as honesty, respect, courage and self-sacrifice.
The Samurai was a sensitive warrior, meaning he had a deep understanding of death and lived having accepted that each day could be his last. This alone takes a courage that many don’t have, to be prepared for death and ready for its arrival no matter the time.