The Samurai: more than meets the eye

August 8, 2017

WHEN we think of America we think of burgers. When we think of the UK, Tea, and when we think of Japan we think of modernity. However, the institution of the Japanese Samurai transcends the recent history of whirring gadgets and blazing lights. We at Japan Nakama know that the legacy of such an order had inspired and impacted the perception and reality of Japanese culture in Japan and abroad. Our new clothing line will celebrate the life of two of the most exciting and mysterious Samurai ever to have walked Japan’s hills.

“An emphasis on honour and duty come above personal profit.”

Why this matters is because we must ask ‘who were the Samurai?’ Remember Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai? Funnily enough, this portrayal of Samurai culture has some commonalities with reality. An emphasis on honour and duty come above personal profit. In Japanese this chivalry is known as bushido, though it differs in many ways from its European iteration. Chivalry was associated with knights, rich and lavish. Our Japanese Samurai, however, chose a more Spartan path, frugal with their desires. They lived to serve their masters until their death, or all too commonly, they fell ill of their master’s wishes.

Samurai Jack, the popular cartoon, also drew on historical myth in its episodes. The Samurai weapon of choice was the katana, known to most people simple as the Samurai Sword. Films and TV shows are a great medium to experience what it must have been like to serve as a Samurai, though what’s even better, is from local myth and art dating back to 900AD. The Samurai we know and love didn’t emerge in the traditional image we see until the mid-1200s, but by then there were already myths and stories of their deeds across Eastern Asia.

Fact or fiction?

One Samurai, who’s story we love at Japan Nakama, is ‘Yanone Goro’ from the play ‘Kuruwa-gayoi Komachi Soga’ (yes it’s a mouthful!) He’s depicted as a great warrior surrounded by katana swords and other weapons. This is until he’s disturbed by a friend, Ôzatsuma Shuzendayû, who offers him a beautiful silken scroll depicting the seven gods of Good Fortune (shichifukujin) in their boat full of treasures. The scroll, he is told, will give him a premonition if he rests his head on it on the first night of the year. As he does so, that evening, the scroll guides him into a dream where his brother calls for aid. Goro, incensed, rushes outside to begin his rescue mission. The play ends with Goro stealing a horse because he’s so pressed for time, and exits the stage whipping his horse with an enormous radish. The horse he borrowed was from a vegetable salesman.

Did you know that Japan Nakama has a Yanone Goro T-Shirt now? See it here.

Wood block prints, the traditional art form of pre-modern Japan, also tell us so much about the history of the Samurai. Yoshitoshi’s print of Gyokuensai the Samurai – hiding from the wind under cherry blossom and shielded by a kimono – is a peaceful and lonely print. This highlights part of the Samurai’s plight. For example, where is his master?

But, not all Samurai had masters. As mentioned before, Samurai often ‘went rogue’. Glamourized by films such as 47 Ronin, but realised by famed Samurai like ‘Sakamoto Ryoma’. When a Samurai goes rogue he follows his own desires, such as contract killing, becoming a hermit or wandering the land to pass the time.

The stories of Yanone Goro and Gyokuensai are just one small part of the amazing story of the Japanese Samurai. Keep coming back to us for more, but in the meantime have a look here.

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Will graduated from the University of Edinburgh in the summer of 2017, he now seeks to forge a career in journalism and literary criticism. A massive football, electronic music and food fan he's always on the lookout for things new, or old, to write about.

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