The Samurai: Honour And Pride That Continues To Inspire Generations
The Sword is the Soul of the Samurai.
Samurai warriors were the elite of four classes of Japanese feudal society; samurai, farmers, craftsmen, and then merchants. They were expected to bring security to the members of the other three classes.
The term, samurai, is a derivative of the Japanese verb for service, “saburau”, and literally means “one who is a servant”, thus is how they began, as ’servants’ to Emperor Tenmu back in the 7th century.
Samurai were inspired by Bushido (Military-Knight-Ways) is an unwritten code of moral principles which the knights (samurai) were required or instructed to observe. Bushido made the sword its emblem of power and prowess.
The very possession of such an instrument imparts the carrier a feeling and an air of self-respect and responsibility. What he carries in his belt is a symbol of what he carries in his mind and heart – loyalty and honor.
Often, the second son was born into a life of warfare, as the first son was needed to take care of the family household. As part of his training, a samurai warrior considered it “his foremost concern to keep death in mind at all times.” Doing so will fulfill the ways of loyalty and familial duty.
The swordsmith was not a mere artisan but an inspired artist and his workshop a sanctuary. He commenced daily his craft with prayer and purification, or as the phrase was “the swordsmith committed his soul and spirit into the forging an tempering of the steel.” Every swing of the sledge, every plunge into water, every fiction on the grindstone, was a religious act of grand intention.
As Tokugawa Ieyasu (founder and first shogun of the Tokugawa shogunate of Japan) said, “The Sword is the Soul of the Samurai.”
Many of us are familiar with the long katana, but in fact, the samurai had several more types of swords at his disposal. Below is a brief summary of his common swords.
Tachi were long curved swords used by armored samurai on horseback from the Heian period (794- 1185) into the Kamakura period (1185-1333). They were loosely suspended from the belt with the edge downwards and were able to be drawn efficiently for cutting down enemy foot soldiers.
Katana swords, used from the Muromachi period (1392-1573) onwards, were worn through the belt edge uppermost. This was due to the changing style of warfare during the Period of Warring Provinces (1467-1573) when battles between well-armed horsemen gradually gave way to large-scale warfare between great armies of infantry. A sword longer than two shaku (60.6cm) is a katana.
Many such swords, known as uchigatana (hitting swords), were correspondingly shorter than the tachi, typically around 60cm-64cm. They were intended for use in one hand and have very short tangs.
The wakizashi (side or companion sword) was the shorter of the two swords, worn at all times by the samurai, whereas the katanawas usually only carried out of doors in a pair with the wakizashi. The length of a wakizashi is between one shaku (30.3cm) and twoshaku (60.6cm).
In accordance with the Buke Shohatto (Laws of the Military Houses) edict of 1629 at the start of the Edo period defining the duties of a warrior, samurai were required to wear matching swords when on official duty.
Tanto swords are no longer than one shaku (30.3cm) in length. The tanto was designed primarily as a stabbing weapon to pierce through armor, but the edge can be used for slashing as well.
Historically speaking, a tanto is a dagger carried by men and women of the samurai class in Japan. It was useful a weapon for self-defense in close quarters when a long katana or slightly shorter wakizashi would not do.
Pablo Kuntz, Co-Founder of Unique Japan is based in the UK after living in Japan for nearly 20 years. Unique Japan’s mission is to unite one-of-a-kind pieces with owners who appreciate and cherish the kind of quality, story and craftsmanship that only Japan could ever hope to produce.
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Portions of the article were quoted from Stephen Turnbull’s The Book of the Samurai (New York: Gallery Books, 1982), writers Steve DeVault at suite101.com and Doug Wilson at hersheystory.org and Victor Harris’s book “Japanese Swords in the British Museum”.
Bushido: The Soul of Japan provides a glorious insight to the moral principles of the samurai, and as such, is a must read for anyone who has come into contact with the people of Japan.
Other books recommended by Unique Japan can be found here
Above image, “Warrior Onikojima Yataro” by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, courtesy of Japanese Gallery London.