One of the great mistakes I often see in popular media and pseudo-budo research is that the Samurai of Japan was a warrior fighting class from ancient times. Indeed nothing could be further from the truth.
Before the Tokugawa unification (1603-1867 - aka Edo Period), a type of fighting men loosely called Bushi (侍) - literally meaning ‘person who stops a spear - were the one’s who did most of the fighting. Aside from a few, these people were non-professional and mostly commoners/farmers. However, after the Tokugawa unification and stability to feudal Japan, the Bakufu and a new caste system were established.
Under this caste system, there were four significant classes within Japan, Samurai (士 shi), farming peasants (農 nō), artisans (工 kō) and merchants (商 shō) in standard parlance references as shinōkōshō.
Outside of this system were the Emperor, Shogun and nobility, and the outcast. This latter group became known as the Eta or Burakumin (部落民) and were considered outcasts as they usually worked in industries such as executioners, undertakers, slaughterhouse workers, butchers, or tanners. Based on an interpretation of Buddhist scripture, they worked with blood and thus were damned. Indeed, it was not until the mid-1990s that the Japanese government made a significant effort to end this caste’s ostracisation.
(from en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Burakumin ).
Under the Tokugawa regime, the new term/kanji for Samurai (侍) provides clues to their role. Gone was the idea of them being warriors, replaced instead with their new status of ‘people who form a temple’ or, in other words, the bureaucracy, of which warring was but one of their roles. Indeed, the highly misleading book the Hagakure, written by a bureaucratic samurai from a peaceful Japan, harkens back to a mythical past and a blood lust that had long been outlawed within Japan. Moreover, the stereotype of seppuku was strictly forbidden for this samurai class were far too valuable to the state to kill themselves willy-nilly even if their honour was tarnished. Research indicates of the 600 samurai who committed seppuku in the Tokugawa period, none of their families had retained their previous status or land within one generation. Thus, seppuku was not a way of ‘saving face, and family fortune, as the popular media would have us believe (Kannon Kakumyo, ‘What is Bushido?' Paper presented at the 18th international Seminar of Budo Culture, 2006)
For some of the more romantically inclined, they will be sad to know that the whole 47 Ronin escapade resulted from financial friction rather than avenging the death of the honourable Lord Asano. Indeed Asano was a hothead and very irresponsible; thus, when he was found guilty and made to commit seppuku, few mourned his death. Indeed his selfish action resulted in mass poverty for his family and those 47 families he was responsible for.
While the word Samurai had been used before the Tokugawa period, it was not until establishing the caste system that it became mainstream. In a similar vein, Bushido (see HERE ) did not gain wide usage until Nitobe used the term when writing in English about the Japanese spirit. To make Japan acceptable within the world order wherein the Meiji restoration, he essentially coined the term in 1911! It had been used previously, but only within elite academic circles. It is perhaps one of the great ironies of history that a word often used to define Japan was re-imported to Japan from the English book of the same name in the early 1900s. Sadly, it is also a word used to drive 3 million Japanese and over 30 million others to their death during World War two.
Thus despite what so-called Sensei or populist writing would have us believe, ‘the code of Bushido’ did not exist in mind or soul of the average Japanese until after it had been exported to the English-speaking world. Additionally, even for the samurai caste, there is no single code. Most of those that suggest samurai ethics were written long after the Samurai had primarily been a military force. Indeed, those who doubt this assertion must read the works of Musashi, Takuan, and Yagyu, all of whom write at the start of the Tokugawa era. None of them discusses ‘bushido’, except in a few poorly translated English texts.
Lastly, the Samurai were not a homogeneous cast. There were three main groupings:
The Tozama would come back to haunt the Tokugawa as they oversaw the end of the Shogun system during the Bakumatsu and Meiho periods.
While this is a short post on a complex topic, I hope it can contribute in a small way to dispelling so many myths I see passed on in dojo, populist history/fiction and misleading post on SNS. And sadly, in many schools!
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