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Origins of the Samurai | Zen and the Samurai | Ten Samurai Sayings | More samurai Sayings

Origins Of The Samurai.

by David Lay. image

By 200 AD, rice cultivation had been known on the islands east of the Asian continent for 500 years. With agriculture had come ownership of land where previously, boundaries between small nomadic hunting groups had been indistinct. People came to live together in communities, sharing in the work of planting and harvesting, and in defense against others who would take their winter stores. With the possession of land had come war.

The growth of farming drew people away from hunting and away from hunting skills. Some were naturally better suited to fighting then others and so honed those skills, becoming specialists at fighting. Those who fought became warriors, and by virtue of their strength, became the leaders of their clans. The wars they fought resulted in larger clans overcoming and absorbing smaller ones. Japanese society of the third century was composed of many clans, capable and willing to wage war for advantage. It would not be very long before they became one society.

By 200 AD, the Chinese Han court had received envoys from as many as 30 clans from northern Kyushu through their offices on the Korean peninsula. The ancestors of the Japanese had much more reason to look west than to the northern wilderness since the west held much to attract them in both materials and technology. Korean iron and weapons were particularly desirable. Shortly after the fall of the Han in 220 AD, Kyushu clans, capable and willing to wage war for advantage, attacked.

Warriors of this era fought on foot with bows, stabbing swords, and spears. Armour was worn, but most warriors probably had only shields. Steel and bronze had come to the Japanese islands with rice and so they knew of and used these materials. The more advanced technology and the better materials, however, were still from the continent. By 300 AD the religious, political, and military consolidation of independent clans culminated with the Yamato clan becoming dominant. Included in the consolidation were clans on northern Kyushu and southern Honshu. The Yamato were in power because of the support of many clans rather than the surrender of those clans.

The Yamato culturally consolidated early Japanese society; administratively, many local clans remained relatively independent. Archaeological excavations show that mound tombs constructed in this time were all very similar and yet widely distributed. They demonstrate the cultural unity of the people, the independence of distributed clans, and the measure of their power over the lower classes. Yamato invasions of the Korean peninsula were frequent, leading even to the establishment a land-hold. The tip of the peninsula, called Mimana, long under the influence of the islanders, was established as their own domain and base for raids in the fourth century. From this presence, the flow of culture and technology was assured.

image War with the continentals was not always a matched fight, however. Shortly after 400 AD, the enemy demonstrated that they had learned to fight from horseback. Up until that time, horses, though available, had not been ridden in war by the Yamato. Shooting an arrow from horseback required two hands. Until the invention of stirrups in China in the first century, falling off one's horse was a much more likely event than successfully launching a home hitting arrow. With stirrups providing two-sided support and a saddle to brace one's knees, a warrior could stand, use his feet to guide the horse, shoot arrows, and swing a sword. With the additional speed offered by a mount, foot soldiers could be easily surprised and devastated by many fewer men.

The Yamato participated in politics and culture on the Korean peninsula directly. Alliances were made and war waged. Even marriages were arranged between courts. The Yamato and Paikche found a common enemy in the Silla and so allied against them. Paikche and Yamato, as allies, exchanged knowledge and material. Scribes arrived in Yamato almost immediately after contact. Buddhism arrived in 538. Sword smiths, armourers, and horses all made their way to Yamato. By 600, one third of the Yamato court was composed of foreign immigrants brought to Yamato for their advanced knowledge and skills. In time, the developed skills of the Yamato made their products so desirable that the exchange reversed, and weapons and horses were exported back to the Paekche to aid in the fighting.

Foreign wars were not all that concerned the Yamato, however. Unity in the Yamato court was not the rule. Prior to the 6th century, the Great Lord was the religious and political leader of the nation. (The Yamato ruler had not yet been attributed with divine authority.) The position was hereditary, but without rules for ascension. Each Great Lord kept consorts in great numbers and so it was not always apparent who would reign next. Since power was involved, outside clans often tried to gain influence by marrying daughters to princes in the hope that a son-in-law prince would become Great Lord.

To that end, clans would support their sons-in-law by murdering rivals or by waging war on other clans. One clan warrior was so thorough in killing off competitors, that when his chosen prince died shortly after taking office, a wide search found that the only hereditary choice remaining was a prince who had been in hiding and who was patronized by a rival clan. War on the Korean peninsula eventually led to the expulsion of the Yamato from Mimana in 562.

During the continental wars before and after their expulsion, the Yamato, having become skilled as mounted archers, were often called upon to help their allies. The warriors sent to the continent rode horses which were small, perhaps 40" at the shoulders. Armour for the horses was excluded so that they would be quick. Arrows were the weapon of choice. Swords were used from horseback, but most likely only after arrows had been depleted. Armour was therefore designed primarily to repel arrows.

In 663, with support from the Tang dynasty in China, Silla overwhelmed Yamato and Paekche forces in a deafening defeat. The Chinese had brought new tactics to the battlefield for directing mass peasant armies armed with crossbows. With this defeat, Silla went on to unify the peninsula. Yamato, now reeling with the likelihood of invasion from abroad, withdrew to defend itself.

Just as the Yamato began organizing for defense, difficulties at court took precedence over defence. The Great Lord died and in a subsequent civil war, the next leader, Temmu, took power by the military defeat of his brother.

Temmu became the first "Heavenly Warrior Emperor" of Japan. From the experience of losing to the Chinese and from fears of invasion, Temmu established laws to control the military strength of the nation. Having taken the throne by force, he knew especially well that military power meant ruling power.

image A peasant conscript army was established, with weapons being the possessions of the government. Conscripted service for border guards was required of all clan warriors for periods of three years. Horsemen were to train continuously, peasants 10 out of 100 days. Skills to be practiced included swinging swords, stabbing with spears, firing crossbows, and catapulting stones. "In a government, military matters are the essential thing." stated Temmu.

Temmu also knew the value of diplomacy. Several missions were sent to China, carefully avoiding the Korean peninsula. It was during their first direct contacts with the Tang dynasty that the Yamato first began referring to their islands as the "sun source" or "Nippon". The Chinese pronounced the same characters as "Jihpen". It is this sound which Marco Polo brought back to Europe in the thirteenth century.

The Kanto plain in central Honshu was ideal for raising horses, and perhaps from hunting and military engagements with northern barbarians or "Emishi", the Kanto warriors had long been known as the fiercest of Japan. Eventually, because of their greater skill, border guards came to be Kanto plain warriors almost exclusively. Some of the first written documents available from Japanese history are poems written by warriors about service as border guards:

From today,
Without regard for myself,
I set out,
A shield strong but humble,
For our Sovereign Lord.

In time, however, the threat from the continent diminished and raids from the Emishi became a more pressing concern. In the eighth century, conscripts and Kanto mounted warriors were sent to the north to bring the tribes under court control.

The Emishi were fast horsemen, however, and fought a guerrilla style war. Conscript armies were not effective and were often overwhelmed. The wars eventually stretched the financial limits of the government, and with a population decline due to smallpox and crop failures, armies came to consist only of mounted archers. Crossbows for the peasant armies proved too expensive. Also due to expense and to the rusting failure of iron armour, the government turned to leather armour. The benefit of light weight was an added attraction.

By the end of the eighth century, the Japanese warrior fighting in the northern extents of Honshu essentially fit the historical model of the classical Japanese warrior. By this time, the government had come to depend on the men of the Kanto to such an extent that courtiers no longer personally took up arms. The term "samurai", meaning "those who serve" came into use (although with derogatory meaning when used by pretentious courtiers). Warriors continued to fight on horseback, with bow and arrows as their primary weapon, but also with a newly designed sword.

The Emishi had been found to be fighting with curved swords. These seemed much better suited to slicing cuts inflicted from horseback, and so the Japanese tachi, which had previously been modelled on the continental sword, was revised for the same effect.

  1. Farris, William, Heavenly Warriors, the Evolution of Japan's Military, 500- 1300, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1992.
  2. Sansom, G.B., Japan, A Short Cultural History, Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA, 1952.
  3. Sugawara Makoto, The Ancient Samurai, The East Publications Inc., Tokyo, Japan, 1986.
  4. Varley, Paul, Japanese Culture, A Short History, Charles E. Tuttle, Rutland, VT, 1973.

Zen and the Samurai


"The flower of flowers is the cherry blossom
- the samurai is the man among men."

- Japanese proverb

No figure is more emblematic of Japan and the Japanese than the samurai, the heroic warriors who lived by the code of bushido - the way of the samurai - founded upon loyalty, justice and honour. The warrior tradition in Japan is as ancient as the country itself, but the true samurai emerged during the late Heian period (mid 12th century) and thereafter ruled Japan for some 800 years. During this time, the classic Japanese martial arts evolved, and with them the bushido code.

The most important influence on the code of the samurai was the introduction of Zen Buddhism during the Kamakura period (1192-1333 AD), which became the philosophical basis of bushido. Bushido demands, above all else, the willingness to face death - and facing death willingly means conquering fear. According to Zen principles, fear can only be truly conquered by eliminating the notion of self.

By the period of the Warring States (late 15th -16th centuries), the most colourful period of the samurai chronicles, Zen and bushido had taken deep root among the samurai, and had penetrated into the culture and values of the Japanese people as a whole. The traditional samurai way of life came to an end after the Meiji Restoration in 1868, when the social structure that had supported the samurai for many centuries was subjected to sweeping change.

Ironically, it was the samurai who had been instrumental in bringing the Meiji Government to power, and there were a number of rebellions by the disenfranchised warriors, the most famous being the Satsuma Rebellion led by Saigo Takamori, "the last samurai".

Today the samurai spirit and the code of bushido live on, notably in the practice of the martial art of kendo. Kendo means literally `the way of the sword'. Based upon traditional samurai swordsmanship, it transmits the ancient traditions and has attracted many followers.

The essence of this classical martial art is that, in the pursuit of the desired aim, mental training is even more important than physical training - a fact that is now recognized in Western sports psychology. Kendo , the practice of which is always preceded and followed by a Zen kendo meditation, is an ideal means of personal development, as it is designed to perfect of kind of discipline necessary to cultivate alertness, speed of action and direct cognition, - qualities that are as important today as in the days of the samurai.

Here are ten famous samurai sayings that bear on the theme of the primacy of the mind, translated from the Japanese by Minoru Kiyota, kendo teacher and Professor of Buddhist Studies.

Ten Samurai Sayings

1. Duel
'One finds life through conquering the fear of death within one's mind. Empty the mind of all forms of attachment, make a go-for-broke charge and conquer the opponent with one decisive slash.' - Togo Shigekata.

2. Stance.
'An effective stance is to be attached neither to the opponent's sword nor to one's own sword.' - Yagyu Toshiyoshi.

3. Mental Calm.
'The undisturbed mind is like the calm body water reflecting the brilliance of the moon. Empty the mind and you will realize the undisturbed mind.' - Yagyu Jubei.

4. Mental Evenness.
'To be swayed neither by the opponent nor by his sword is the essence of swordsmanship.' - Miyamoto Musashi.

5. Self.
'Conqueror the self and you will conquer the opponent.' - Takuan Soho.

6. The Immoveable Mind.
'The mind unmoved by external distraction produces physical mobility.' - Yagyu Renyasai.

7. Tricks, Feints and Schemes.
'The hands manipulate the sword, the mind manipulates the hands. Cultivate the mind and do not be deceived by tricks, feints and schemes. They are the properties of a magician, not of the samurai..' - Saito Yakuro.

8. Maturity.
'Mental bearing (calmness), not skill, is the sign of a matured samurai. A samurai therefore should neither be pompous nor arrogant.' - Tsukahara Bokuden.

9. Peace.
'Conquering evil, not the opponent, is the essence of swordsmanship.' - Yagyu Munenori.

10. Samurai Character.
'An unpolished crystal does not shine; an undisciplined samurai does not have brilliance. A samurai therefore should cultivate his mind.' - Anonymous.

Three More Samurai Sayings

The following three sayings were among the favourites of Omori Sogen, the foremost Zen Master of the twentieth century.

1. 'When a cow drinks water, it becomes milk. When a snake drinks water,
it becomes poison.' Omori often used this traditional saying in his
teaching to illustrate the point that thinking about cause and effect is
an empty chase after meaning. Awareness of conditions is far more useful.

2. 'True 'no-thought, no-mind' zazen is just one thing - to have a dauntless mind.'
This maxim of Suzuki Shosan was another favorite of Omori.

3. The Way is a natural way of the Universe, and to learn it, one must revere
Heaven, love man, and live one's life from first to last in self-control.'
- This saying by Saigo Takamori was much valued by Omori.

This translation of the saying is by Trevor Leggett.

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