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Culture of the Samurai

When one thinks of a Japanese samurai, they generally picture in their mind a stout warrior devoid of emotion, battle armor glinting, and sword poised with a silent threat. Although this image may be historically accurate, many people do not expand their thoughts past the awe-inducing thought of such a noble warrior and into the many arts within the cultural aspects of being a samurai. Their art of fighting is what made the samurai famous world-wide. Although pride and honor came before anything else in the life of a samurai, there is much more to them than common knowledge dictates.

In order to fully understand the Samurai in ancient Japan, it is necessary to take a look at the historical framework of the time. Before the early 12th century, Japan was ruled by an all-powerful Emperor who derived his power from the belief that he was a descendant of the sun goddess. Under the Emperor were small semi-autonomous tribal units called uji, who were bound together by fictitious bonds of kinship. These units were loyal to the Emperor and some, especially in the case of the Fujiwara clan during the Heian period (794-1185), even exerted dominance over the imperial family and were the ones who actually governed the Emperor’s land.

However, the beginning of the 12th century saw the decline of Imperial power and the rise of regional militias formed to protect precious land in the wake of disunity in Japan caused by the break up of the Han Dynasty. It was during this time that the Samurai class began to take shape and rise to power. Perhaps one of the most fascinating arts that has come to be linked with the samurai is the cha no yu, or tea ceremony. Few activities in general are quite as thoroughly refined and thoughtful and yet evolved through such troubled times.

Complicated and yet utterly simple, the tea ceremony in many ways could be a metaphor not only for the samurai ideal but also for the land of Japan itself. The tea ceremony normally took place in a tearoom, the chachitsu. The guests entered through the nijiriguchi, a small square door, with samurai leaving their swords outside and the last to enter, closing the door behind him. The nijiriguchi was only about two and a half feet square. Guests therefore entered by crawling, a deliberately humbling device intended to create a sense of equality once inside.

The tearoom was arranged so that those entering would first spy a scroll hanging in the tokonoma – or alcove. This scroll was normally of calligraphy, with its subject often that of a simple observation such as Honrai mu Ichibutsu (‘Originally there is nothing’). As this scroll is carefully chosen by the host to reflect a mood or the season, the guests customarily spend a moment appreciating it before seating themselves around a small hearth in the center of the room.

At this point the host enters, and the principal guest thanks him or her for their invitation and politely inquires about the scroll or some other object in the room should one be present. However, and throughout the time spent in the tearoom, conversations and articulations are brief, and it was considered impolite to speak of things not related to the ceremony. The principle guest then serves a light meal, called the kaiseki, which was intended to be pleasing to the eye as well as the taste.

At this time, a modest serving of sak, a rice wine, is also offered in shallow bowls, followed by a piece of fruit or some other light dessert. The guests then exit the tearoom while the host prepares it for the drinking of tea, replacing the scroll with a single flower in a vase. When the guests return, the host heats water in an iron kettle, then rinses and wipes the tea bowl and utensils. He places powdered green tea in a bowl with a bamboo dipper, then whips the tea with a whisk (also bamboo) until the surface is slightly frothy, then serves it to his guests.

Two kinds of tea will be served: koi-cha, which is the more formal of the two and possessed of a thicker consistency and bitter taste, and usu-cha – thinner and more ‘informal’. Koi-cha is served first, and all the guests drink a small quantity from the same bowl. Later in the ceremony, usucha is served in individual bowls. The tea bowls themselves can vary in design according to the host and the season. ‘Winter’ tea bowls are deeper, to help contain heat, while ‘summer’ bowls are shallower and broader to release the heat and give the impression of coolness.

Throughout the ceremony, the hosts and guests both aspire towards a sense of tranquility. The priest Takuan wrote of preparing for a tea ceremony and said, “and let this all be carried out in accordance with the idea that in this room we can enjoy the streams and rocks as we do the rivers and mountains in Nature, and appreciate the various moods and sentiments suggested by the snow, the moon, and the trees and flowers, as they go through the transformation of seasons, appearing and disappearing, blooming and withering.

As visitors are greeted here with due reverence, we listen quietly to the boiling water in the kettle, which sounds like a breeze passing through the pine needles, and become oblivious of all worldly woes and worries” Another art often not thought of is ancient Japanese clothing. As may be expected, the basic clothing item in a samurai’s ‘everyday’ wardrobe was the kimono, which for men normally consisted of an outer and inner layer. Heavier kimonos were worn in the winter, while lighter examples (those made of finer silk, for instance) were worn in the summer.

In fact, there was a ceremonial day where winter kimonos were exchanged for their summer counterparts, traditionally on the 1st day of the Fourth Month. A samurai’s kimono would normally be made of silk, a material considered superior to cotton and hemp not only for its feel and appearance but for its relative coolness in the hot Japanese summer. Naturally, the quality of a kimono a given samurai might depend largely on his personal station and income. Though at least prior to the Edo Period, there were no hard and fast rules in this regard.

Hojo Soun, for instance, touches on the matter of clothing in his 21 Articles, “Don’t think your swords and clothing should be as good as those of other people. Be content as long as they don’t look awful. Once you start acquiring what you don’t have and become even poorer, you’ll become a laughingstock. ” Exceptionally bright colors and outlandish patterns were typically avoided or frowned upon as a show of immodesty or conceit. On the same token, women of samurai families tended to wear kimono layers and colors dependant upon the station and/or power of their husbands.

Samurai children, however, were dressed rather flamboyantly, and a more subdued appearance was one of the results of the coming-of-age ceremony. Older samurai tended towards shades of gray or brown, in keeping with their dignified age. Beneath the kimono, a loincloth, or fundoshi, was worn, of which there were two varieties. One was essentially a wrap that, for lack of a better description, resembled a diaper; the other type (more often worn under armor) was a long piece of material worn down the front of the body.

A loop slung around the neck fastened the top of the loincloth while the other end was pulled up around the other side of the abdomen and tied around the front of the lower waist with cords. Samurai had the option of wearing socks, called tabi, which included a space to separate the big toe from the other toes (to facilitate the wearing of sandals). Tabi, worn in an everyday capacity, were normally white and were tailored to the season. Footwear generally consisted of sandals (waraji) and wooden clogs (geta).

Sandals were made from various sorts of material, including straw, hemp, and cotton thread. Clogs were generally associated with the lower classes (geisha, for instance, and kabuki actors are often depicted wearing geta) though samurai wore them from time to time. The Tale of the Heike, for instance, mentions that the powerful Taira Kiyomori wore clogs, though it was considered sufficiently unusual to find its way into puns composed by his rivals. Bearskin boots were at one time popular, especially with armor, but by the 16th Century had come to be considered archaic.

For rainy days, samurai, like everyone else, wore raincoats made out of straw (kappa) and availed themselves of folding umbrellas, which looked rather like Victorian era parasols, complete with decoration. Between the 12th and 17th Century, the hitatare style of dress was popular. Unlike the common kimono, hitatare was a two-piece costume, though comparably flowing and ample. This costume, for a possible frame of reference, is what most of the samurai wear in Japanese movies set prior to the Edo Period (the oft-mentioned Kagemusha, Ran, Throne of Blood, Heaven and Earth, ect).

Generally worn when in some ‘official’ capacity, the hitatare were normally adorned with the crest (or mon) of their immediate family or clan, or, in the case of relatives or direct retainers of the lord, the crest of the daimy or shugo. Decorative bows also often adorned hitatare, normally worn on the breast. As with the standard kimono, the samurai’s swords were normally thrust through a belt (obi) worn wrapped around the waist and tied in the front. Alternatively, the main sword could be slung by cords from the obi while the short sword (Wakizashi) or knife (tanto) was worn through the Obi.

Regardless, the sword was always worn on the left side, probably a case of a practical consideration that became more fashion oriented. Indoors, the samurai might dispense with his long sword, but always kept some form of weaponry on his person, (ex. the simple dagger) even during the tea ceremony. Daimy, an elite class of samurai, could expect a page to carry his sword for him, though typically only in the most formal of circumstances. In addition, a simple folding fan might be tucked in the obi, as well as, perhaps, a few tissues.

The hitatare could be worn ‘half-off’, that is, the upper half was allowed to hang about the waist, and this would be done when engaging in impromptu wrestling matches or, occasionally, shows of swordsmanship or archery. By the Edo Period, the hitatare gave way to the kamishimo. The kamishimo consisted of a two-piece costume worn over a kimono. This is probably the most well known samurai dress. The upper piece was called the kataginu, and was essentially a sleeveless jacket or vest with exaggerated shoulders. Alternatively, a long sleeved coat, the haori , could be worn, especially when traveling or in bad weather.

The lower piece was the hakama: wide, flowing trousers somewhat like those found in the older hitatare. The kamishimo would normally be composed of the same material, and was more likely to reflect the status of its wearer than not. The Edo Period was an extremely status-conscious time in Japanese history and this was nowhere more the case then among the samurai. Style was, as always, important, but subject to much greater regulation. The kamishimo was normally worn outside of the house, or when expecting visitors. Otherwise, the trusty kimono would do.

The samurai’s hair was an important part of his appearance, and most texts and house-codes of the samurai make reference to the importance of its neat appearance. For the better part of a thousand years, the traditional hairstyle was the topknot, a fashion by no means exclusive to the samurai. Nearly everyone, with the exception of Buddhist priests, wore topknots, making the genesis of this style nearly impossible to guess at it with authority. There is reference to the use of topknots in ancient China, and it might have been one of the many cultural imports introduced to Japan between the Asuka-Nara and Heian Periods.

Needless to say, there was any number of styles of topknot by the Edo Period. The chasen-gami , for instance, was produced by wrapping a piece of string around the length of the topknot, producing a spray of hair at the end that resembled a tea whisk. The topknot would then either be worn back or forward, hanging over the center of the head. The mitsu-ori was a style popular in the later 16th Century. The hair was well oiled and formed into a queue and folded forward on the head, then back again, and was tied in place.

An abbreviated version, the futatsu-yori, was only folded forward before being tied, and was trimmed with a razor to give the front an almost solid appearance. Interestingly, these styles were not uncommon among the lower classes. For headgear out of armor, powerful samurai would wear eboshi, a cap of black silk gauze stiffened with a black lacquered paper lining. The cap was held in place either by a white cord, or was pinned to the samurai’s topknot. The size and shape of the cap was largely dependant on the samurai’s rank, though the use of eboshi was reserved for only the most formal of events by the 16th Century.

As most anyone knows, a samurais honor is his life, and vice versa. Hara-kiri is the common language term for ritual suicide. Hara-kiri, which literally means “stomach cutting”, is a particularly painful method of self-destruction. Commonly known simply as seppuku, it was only allowed to be performed by samurai class warriors. A Samurai was allowed to die by his own hand in order to show respect for his character and honor. Other than the samurai who committed seppuku, a kaishaku was needed. Kaishaku, an assistant who was called the “second”, was responsible for cutting off the samurai’s head after he had sliced his abdomen open.

The person was generally a close friend or associate of the condemned. Usually there would be about two attendants from the samurai’s lord and/or the shogun. They were called kenshi, or inspector. They were sent by the Shogun and responsible to observe the ritual and to file a report. Seppuku was carried out with dignity and great care by both the person committing it as well as the kaishaku. The soon-to-be-dead samurai dressed out in a nice, white kimono to symbolize purity. Before him would be a wooden tray crafted for this specific occasion.

Placed upon it were a sheaf of washi paper, ink, a cup of sake, and a short knife called a tanto. To start the ceremony, he would drink the sake, preferably in two gulps. One gulp was considered gauche, and three was considered to be miserly. Two gulps showed the correct combination of contemplation and determination. Next, the samurai would take the paper and ink and compose a fitting poem. After composing the poem, he would then procede to the main event. The samurai slipped down his upper kimono to his girdle, carefully put his sleeves under his knees in order to die and fall forward; a standard way for a samurai to die.

He took the dirk that lay before him with a steady hand. After waiting a few seconds to collect his thoughts, he stabbed himself deeply below the waist on the left hand side. He drew the dirk slowly across to the right. As the dirk reached the right side he gave a slight cut upward and then leant forward, craning his neck. Once an expression of pain crossed his face, the kaishaku, who had been keenly watching the whole process, sprang to his legs and poised his sword in the air for a second, cut off the head from the body quickly and smoothly.

During a dead silence the kaishaku, having wiped his sword, bowed solemnly to the witnesses, and the dirk was removed as a proof of the death of the samurai. Although seppuku is now forbidden, many people in modern Japan still believe that an honorable death is better than a disgraceful life. Influenced by this idea, Japan has the highest rate of suicide in the world. Hearing of a Japanese kill themselves for failing in business or for not passing an exam is not uncommon.

Throughout the centuries, the Japanese samurai has evolved and developed and become a cultural icon. They are distinguished by use of the tea ceremony: a reverent and calming experience. They are recognized by their appearance: status symbols, fashion, and utility. Finally, they often died by their own hand during the seppuku ritual: an honorable and highly choreographed death. The samurai lives as a fantastic image in the minds of subsequent cultures worldwide. However, there is much more history, ritual, and sacrifice to their history than most people tend to realize.

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