The Samurai History
Posted on September 17th, 2013

By. Dr. Nishan Wijesinha (Specialist Consultant) MIS Services, St. Anthony’s Road, Colombo 3.

My great grand father Louis Corneille Wijesinha, who was a Mudaliya and the first national scholar to translate the world famous Mahavansa from Pali to English; was renowned also as an enthusiast of the Japanese Samurai Tradition; which eventually compelled me to write this article.
The foundations of the ethical code of Bushido began to take hold during the Heian period with the samurai. “The Way of the Warrior” or Bushido emphasized duty to one’s master (in this case, a shogun) with loyalty until death.
Buddhist and Zen principles contributed to the tenets of this via a belief in reincarnation.
Along with this, samurai warriors believed that it was highly honorable to commit suicide or seppuka via disembowelment with a small sword after being defeated in battle (or upon dishonor). They would fight fearlessly for their masters and would rather die honorably either through seppuka or in battle than surrender in defeat.
Further, it was actually deemed legally appropriate for a samurai to cut down any common person that failed to honor him (or her) in appropriate fashion.
In other words, honor and integrity was everything to them.
Samurai in Battle
Previous to the Mongol invasion, the samurai were expert archers that often fought from horseback. Afterwards, however, they began to utilize full body armour in battle; which usually included a horned helmet, as well as swords, poles tipped with blades, and spears.
Along with this, during the 14th century a blacksmith named Masamune utilized a two-layer structure of soft and hard steel with swords, which led to improved cutting power and durability, eventually resulting in the Japanese katana. The katana became a part of the Samurai Daisho, which means “long and short”. The katana was the long part of the equation, utilized for slashing, while the shorter part was the Wakizashi, which was more useful as a stabbing tool. Eventually, the Daisho became so synonymous with the samurai that non-samurai were literally forbidden to wear it (16th century).
Back to the Timeline: The Ashikaga Period
Emperor Go-Daigo twice attempted to take advantage of the weakened Kamakura following the Mongol invasions. His first attempt to seize control via armed forces failed. His second produced fruit in 1333. However, in 1336 the Ashikaga Shogunate under Ashikaga Takauji took control, once again establishing samurai rule.

Rise of the Daimyo
During the Ashikago Period, daimyos or regional constables began to assert a level of authority due to the weakened state of the shogun. In fact, by 1460 some daimyos began to ignore orders from their shoguns entirely. When Ashikago Yoshimasa resigned in 1464, fighting amongst possible successors and daimyo led to the Onin War. This war led to the “Warring States Period” or Sengoku.

Yoshiaki Becomes Shogun

Sengoku ended in 1568 when Oda Nobunaga defeated three other prominent daimyos and installed Yoshiaki as shogun. For nearly a decade and a half, he fought off other daimyo and even Buddhist monks until he was assassinated by Akeci Mitsuhide, one of his generals, in 1582. Another of his generals by the name of Hideyoshi ruled as kampaku (regent) later. Of importance in history is the fact that Hideyoshi decided to invade Korea in both 1592 and 1597.

Tokugawa Shogunate and the Edo Period

This was a time of relative peace and prosperity for the samurai and Japan. Though Hideyoshi had exiled the Tokugawa clan from his ruling area, he died in 1598. By 1600, Tokugawa Ieyasu had masterminded the demise of all the other western daimyo from his headquarters in Edo, which would eventually be named Tokyo. Hidetada, Ieyasu’s son, then became shogun in 1605. This marked the beginning of approximately two and a half centuries of peace for Japan. Under the Tokugawa regimes, the samurai also became more cultured.

The fall of the Samurai

In 1868, a series of events termed the Meiji Restoration came to pass. During this time, fueled by western influences for the first time, modern weapons like guns began to be utilized by the Japanese. All of this eventually led the Tokugawa Shogunate to relinquish power to the Meiji emperor, who effectively got rid of the samurai (enrolling many into the new government’s army which started in 1873). In 1877, approximately 40,000 ex-samurai fled and then revolted against the Meiji Emperor in the Satsuma Rebellion. The revolting group’s last stand against the Imperial forces in the Battle of Shiroyama ended in heartache for these samurai and their leader, Saigo Takamori. They were simply up against far superior numbers and firepower. The movie -The Last Samurai-, starring Tom Cruise, served as a fictional depiction of this final fall of the samurai class.

Japan, was simply never the same again from that day forward.

The Golden Age of Samurai Sword

The Kamakura (1192 to 1336) and Muromachi (1337 to 1573) periods were without a doubt the Golden Age of Samurai sword history. After the great Mongol invasion of Japan, which was only narrowly averted by the weather (the Kamikaze/Divine winds) the need for a strong national defense force was apparent and in response new sword smithies appeared all over the countryside.

It was during the last part of the Kamakura that Samurai sword history celebrated its fame and glory through their legendary smith; -Legendary Masamune-.

The Legendary Masamune

Masamune (also known as Goro Nyudo) was believed to have hailed from Sagami Province and is credited with creating the Soshu tradition of the prominent Samurai sword making; which involved creating a unique hamon (temper line) of martensitic crystals embedded in pearlite matrix (called Nie), thought to resemble stars in the night sky.

Samurai sword history regards Masamune’s swords as some of the most beautifully crafted Katana ever made, and his surviving swords are all priceless national treasures.

In Japanese sword folklore, his swords are often contrasted with those of later smiths known as Muramasa (approx 1500AD).

Muramasa’s swords were regarded as violent, brutish and evil, to that of the swords of Masamune which were considered to be deeply spiritual, pure and benevolent.

One story that best illustrates the differences between these Smiths is a legend that sees Muramasa as Masamune’s student (which actually was impossible, as Samurai sword history records these two smiths as being born almost 200 years apart!) challenging his ‘master’ to see who could make a finer sword.

To test the swords, each sword was held into the current of a stream. Muramasa’s sword was said to have cut a leaf in half that simply touched the blade from the current alone.

But the master Masamune’s sword did not cut a thing off from the leaves miraculously avoiding it at the last second; as if to show it possessed a benevolent power that would not harm anything that was innocent or undeserving – even a simple leaf.

These are now the two legendary schools of the Samurai Martial Arts of today with its traditional Daisho.

 

 

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