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Samurai - Not Exactly What We Thought They Were

Story posted November 03, 2003

The myth of the Samurai is just that. The folkloric vision of the Samurai — a loyal warrior, ready to die for his cause, riding into battle with his sword — bunk. In fact, the Samurai, or at least the ideal with which we are so familiar, were born in peace.

The prevailing image of the Samurai is not rooted in how warriors actually fought in 14th-century Japan. Instead, the image was created by the Samurai themselves, during the 17th century, when they felt a need to justify their own existence — so says Bowdoin Assistant Professor of Asian Studies Thomas Conlan.

"I have a very different take on what the Samurai are, were, than the later ideal," he said.

Conlan has extensively researched warfare in 14th century Japan and his book, State of War: The Violent Order of 14th Century Japan, was just published by the University of Michigan Center for Japanese Studies.

Fourteenth-century Japan was indeed the time of the Shogun and a time of war, and there were Samurai warriors, but the way they behaved was very different from the way they've been portrayed in literature and film. In fact, a new Samurai movie starring Tom Cruise is set to be released in December and will probably feature the same distortions of history.

"That ideal is very much alive. A lot of people have something invested. They want to believe this."

Conlan has recently been interviewed for two documentary productions — one being produced for National Geographic and another for the History Channel, both timed to coincide with the movie. As Conlan shares his discoveries, he has become aware of the fact that many people hold dear the ideal of the samurai, and they don't want to let it go.

"That ideal is very much alive," he said. "A lot of people have something invested. They want to believe this."

In 13th-century and early 14th-century Japan, the Imperial court governed the country, but the emperor delegated authority to a Shogun, who delegated judicial authority to the Kamakura regime. The Kamakura regime was concerned with maintaining order and overseeing policing issues and land disputes. (In 1232 the Kamakura regime created a law code that gave greater protection of land rights than the Magna Carta.) An important part of this judicial regime was the production of documents. As land rights became more concrete, warriors began keeping their own documents — wills, tax records, deeds to land and the like.

The Kamakura regime was destroyed in 1333 as part of a dispute over imperial succession, and a civil war raged in Japan for the next 60 years, but warriors continued to document their military service, including their actions in battle.

Japan's history of record keeping is what has made Conlan's discoveries possible, and books containing copies of documents ranging from the year 1180 to the year 1600 line his office.

"They make a paper that is indestructible," he said. "The documents were a mark of social status, so they were preserved." documents

By translating 1,302 military documents, Conlan has been able to re-create entire battles and gain an understanding of the life a warrior in 14th-century Japan that scholars previously lacked. The documents are narratives of battle including mentions of wounds, fatalities, and who had witnessed them.

For example, in one document, a warrior has described a wound, a gash, that sounds quite serious, but someone else later wrote over it in red "shallow." Someone was checking to see if the soldier had exaggerated his wounds and found that he had.

"I saw these documents and I went, well, it's possible, through wounds to reconstruct pretty precisely the way people fought," Conlan said. "It turned out to be a very rich topic...I realized they're acting very different than we assumed."

For example, Samurai rarely used swords in battle — instead they most often used arrows. So the idea of the sacred Samurai sword isn't exactly accurate. Their weapon of choice was actually the pike, which was essentially a spear. Swords were very expensive, so they weren't used often, which also explains why they survived.

Other surprising findings:

Loyalty has been grossly exaggerated. Warriors were interested in reward and recompense. Conlan found evidence that warriors moved from one side to another depending on the reward they would receive.

Conlan found that warriors, above all, cared about preserving their land, but didn't care specifically about dying for a lord. Conlan has read reports written by warriors about attacking, and then choosing to retreat when they began experiencing casualties.

"They're really looking out for their own interests," he said.

Even the idea of hari kari — opting for suicide rather than facing dishonor — wasn't as noble as the Samurai wanted us to believe. In the 14th century, warriors would sometimes kill themselves, but it was usually when they were about to be captured and executed. They thought it was better to kill themselves than to let their enemies do it. But even though this occurred, according to Conlan its prevalence has been exaggerated.

The notion of the Samurai was created by the warriors themselves in the 17th century. Unlike 14th-century Japan, 17th-century Japan was not ravaged by war. Peace became so important, in fact, that in order to keep peace people willingly gave up many of their rights in service to the law. Because so many disputes in the past had been rooted in land rights, the rulers systematically broke the ties to the land, so even though the Samurai remained an identifiable class, they lost their land rights.

At this time "there's the sense that the law must become a transcendent force," Conlan said. "As a means of establishing authority, there's an emphasis on obeying the law at all costs." Execution became an important tool of the law, and even minor thefts were an executable offense.

In a time of peace, with a stable government, and no more land rights, the Samurai needed to justify their existence. They began promoting that "the way of the Samurai was death," and exaggerating their sense of honor and loyalty. They also encouraged the idea that suicide was an ideal of the warrior, but even in the 17th century, suicides were often pragmatically motivated: If a warrior was executed, his material possessions were not passed on to his heirs. If he killed himself prior to execution, however, his possessions went to his heirs, so some made that choice to protect inheritance rights.

"When you have peace, you can say, the way of the warrior is death. But that's a luxury that you can only say in a time of peace. In a time of war, you can't say that," Conlan said. "I just think their 14th-century compatriots were far more sensible."

When 19th-century Americans encountered the ideal of the Samurai, it made a profound impression on them, and they disseminated the myth. In Japan, itself, the popularity of the Samurai ideal has fluctuated, Conlan said, and now the Samurai ideal is more popular in the United States than in Japan — just look at Star Wars, which created in the Jedi a new version of the Samurai.

Other evidence is the response Conlan gets to his findings: People get upset when they find that the myth they believe in is not reality.

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