A Samurai, by any other name, is not a Samuree : Okinawan and Japanese use of the term. A Short Historical Synopsis
The concept of the "samurai" in Okinawa and Japan, while sharing linguistic origins, evolved into distinct cultural and historical phenomena, profoundly shaped by their respective historical experiences and societal influences. To gain a deeper understanding of these disparities, one must scrutinize the etymological roots of "samurai" and explore how this term manifested differently in each region through historical examples.
The term "samurai" (侍) in Japanese kanji comprises the characters "侍" (ji) and "士" (shi). Etymologically, "侍" originally denoted "to serve" or "to attend," while "士" represented a person of the warrior class or a gentleman. The historical emergence of samurai in mainland Japan can be traced back to the Heian period (794-1185), where they initially served as imperial guards and protectors of the court. However, the true crystallization of the samurai class occurred during the Kamakura period (1185-1333), marked by their adoption of principles such as bushido, emphasizing loyalty, honour, and martial prowess in service to their feudal lords.
In contrast, the Okinawan interpretation of "samurai" diverged significantly. Okinawa, situated at the crossroads of Southeast Asia and Japan, underwent a complex interplay of cultural influences. Interestingly, there was no indigenous Okinawan equivalent for the term "samurai." Instead, Okinawa's warrior class was referred to as "chikudun" or "pechin." These individuals shared some similarities with Japanese samurai but incorporated distinct elements of Chinese Confucianism into their ethos, emphasizing scholarship, diplomacy, and administration alongside their martial skills. There were also a group call Yukatchu who self titled themselves "Samuree (サムレー).
Samurai in Japan:
- Relative Minority: In Japan, the samurai constituted a relatively small and exclusive warrior class within the population. During the feudal period, they accounted for approximately 10% or even less of the total population. This exclusivity was partly due to the hereditary nature of samurai status, with strict hierarchies differentiating between various ranks of samurai based on their service to daimyo (feudal lords).
- Hereditary Class: Membership in the samurai class was typically hereditary, with samurai status passed down through generations within specific families. This hereditary aspect contributed to their relatively small numbers and the exclusivity of their social class. The hereditary nature of samurai status also reinforced a strict code of honour and loyalty.
- Roles and Duties: Samurai in Japan primarily served as warriors and administrators for their feudal lords. Their responsibilities included protecting their lord's domain, maintaining law and order, and collecting taxes. Their lives were characterised by the bushido code, a set of ethical principles that emphasises virtues such as loyalty, honour, and martial skill. While some samurai did engage in scholarly pursuits, their primary duties revolved around military service and maintaining the social order.
Okinawan Samurai (Samuree):
In contrast to Japan, Okinawa had a different socio-political and cultural landscape, which influenced the roles and proportions of its warrior class.
- Broader Proportion: Okinawa boasted a more significant proportion of its population involved in roles akin to samurai, particularly within the Yukatchu class, referred to as "samuree" (サムレー) in the local dialect. These individuals constituted a larger percentage of the Okinawan population compared to the samurai in Japan. This unique demographic distribution can be attributed, in part, to Okinawa's distinct historical context.
- Multifaceted Roles: Okinawan samuree were not confined to martial roles alone. They fulfilled a broader range of responsibilities that included scholarship, diplomacy, and administration. This multifaceted approach to governance and society was heavily influenced by Confucian values, setting them apart from their Japanese counterparts. While they were warriors, they also embraced intellectual pursuits and diplomacy as integral facets of their identity.
Historical Example: Sai On:
To illustrate the multifaceted roles of Okinawan samuree, one can consider the life and contributions of Sai On (1569-1633). Sai On serves as an exemplary figure who embodied the Okinawan samuree tradition. He was a prominent Okinawan scholar, diplomat, and martial artist. Sai On played an instrumental role in diplomatic missions to both China and Japan during his lifetime. His duties extended beyond the battlefield, encompassing negotiations, cultural exchanges, and the propagation of Confucian values. Sai On's life exemplified how Okinawan samuree were not limited to martial roles but also served as cultural intermediaries and diplomats, embodying a unique blend of influences.
Etymology of "Samurai" and "Peichin":
Understanding the etymology of these terms provides additional insights into the cultural and societal roles of these warrior classes.
- Samurai: The term "samurai" (侍) in Japanese kanji comprises two characters: "侍" (ji), meaning "to serve" or "to attend," and "士" (shi), signifying a person of the warrior class or a gentleman. This combination encapsulates the concept of a warrior dedicated to service and honour.
- Peichin: In Okinawa, the term "peichin" (ぺーちん) refers to individuals who played roles akin to samurai. While "peichin" is not a direct translation of the Japanese "samurai," it reflects a unique Okinawan term for their warrior-administrator class. The etymology of "peichin" is believed to originate from the Okinawan word "pii" (ぴー), meaning "person" or "gentleman," combined with "chin" (ちん), indicating a position or rank. This etymology highlights the noble and societal roles held by the peichin class within Okinawan society.
In conclusion, the concept of the "samurai" in Japan and Okinawa offers a fascinating study of both similarities and differences in their relative proportions within their respective populations and societal roles. While Japanese samurai represented a minority elite warrior class primarily focused on martial roles, Okinawa's samuree class embraced a multifaceted approach to governance and society, heavily influenced by Confucian values. The example of Sai On exemplifies how Okinawan samuree were not confined to the battlefield but also served as diplomats and cultural intermediaries, embodying a unique blend of influences. The etymology of these terms further underscores the cultural and historical nuances of these warrior classes, providing a deeper understanding of their distinct paths and contributions to their societies.
1. Karl F. Friday, "Samurai, Warfare and the State in Early Medieval Japan" (Routledge, 2004).
2. George Kerr, "Okinawa: The History of an Island People" (Tuttle Publishing, 2000).
3. Gregory Smits, "Visions of Ryukyu: Identity and Ideology in Early-Modern Thought and Politics" (University of Hawaii Press, 1999).
Okinawan and Japanese Budo
James M. Hatch
International Educator who happens to be passionate about Chito Ryu Karate. Born in Ireland, educated in Canada, matured in Japan