SAMURAI AND JAPANESE SWORDS: A WAY OF LIFE

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“There is surely nothing other than the single purpose of the present moment.

A man’s whole life is a succession of moment after moment.

There will be nothing else to do, and nothing else to pursue.

Live being true to the single purpose of the moment.”


― Yamamoto Tsunetomo, 1716


(Quoted from Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai)

 

What is the Sword? Is it simply an object of killing, or a way of life?

Perhaps all those who have associated themselves with it, have thought of the same question at some point.

INTRODUCTION

The earliest swords known to exist in Japan were of Chinese origin & style and dated back to the 2nd century B.C. These one-of-a-kind swords are basically referred to as Ken or Tsurugi, depending on the usage of the Japanese or sino-Japanese pronunciation of the ideogram in Chinese for sword or knife. From this term comes Kendo, way of the sword; and Kenjutsu, art of the sword.

What is the difference between Kendo and Kenjutsu, you may wonder. Well the short answer is that you could imagine the sword as a pen, where one writes essays or a book using the tool, and that is Kendo. The other would be where the pen is used for calligraphy, precision and creative exhibitions and that would be Kenjutsu.

The sword has played a ubiquitous role in Japanese culture since old times. According to Shinto religion dating back to the oldest texts in Japanese history – the Kojiki (Record of Ancient Matters); the sword “Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi” (lit. Grass cutter Sword) has symbolic presence and is considered as one of the three Imperial Regalia of Japan.

Nihontō is the term one uses to refer to traditionally made Japanese swords with the symbolic curve of the blade from the hilt to the tip. There are many types of Japanese swords that differ by shape, size, field of application and even the method of manufacturing, the most well-known of which is the Katana.

Antique Katana

 

One must understand that Kendo serves as an introduction to the martial arts for personal development and is primarily sportive in nature to an extent, while Kenjutsu is focused towards the philosophy and specialized art of combat and killing. Also, Kendo is practiced using Shinai (wooden bamboo sword) and heavy padding, whereas Kenjutsu uses Bokuto or Shinken (real swords) generally. There are select places in Japan that teach Kenjutsu and their methods of practice vary from each other to an extent since they have their unique style descending through several generations that pass down original styles developed by their respective founders but they all have one thing in common; and that is they all exhibit excellence in the art form and focus on technique. In contrast, Kendo is the modern translation of the martial art of sparring, considered as sports and are very inclusive and open to the public to join.

WARRIOR IN LIFE & DEATH

The Samurai were people who epitomized discipline and virtue and valued their code of honor more than life itself. They have been immortalized as a unique race of warriors all the way back from folklore to modern day cinema. Even though the title itself is not in practice anymore, their legacy still lives on strong.

There are differential references to when the “Samurai” title first came to be. Some say it was around 905 AD in Kokin Wakashū – the first imperial anthology of poems; while some say it was somewhere around 702 AD during the Asuka period. The reference to Samurai as a title is synonymous with the term “Bushi” in Japan. Samurai literally means “one who serves” and is the term used to refer to members of Japan’s warrior class. The original term is known to be “saburai”, which later transformed to the Samurai at present. It is best noted that the Samurai would refer to themselves as “Bushi” or warriors in the third person.

If they faced defeat in battle or were part of something that would be considered dishonorable, they believed death was better than living on in shame and committed “Seppuku” (ritualistic suicide) as a means of atonement which was part of the Bushido code. If a Daimyo (Samurai Lord) was killed or lost in battle, his retainers and all those who served him were expected to commit Seppuku along with him if he was alive. The practice of seppuku itself was overseen by other lords to witness the account of those who died honorably for their lord. It involved the person committing the act dressed in white to express purity of intent, sitting in “seiza” position. The person underwent a bath, followed by being served his favorite foods for the last meal before undergoing the ritual. During the ritual, he would be accompanied by his “Kaishakunin” (idiomatically, his “second”) who would deal the finishing blow to the warrior. He would begin by undoing his white kimono to his waist and pick up the tantō (knife) or wakizashi (short sword) that would be wrapped with a piece of white cloth so that he could hold on to it without losing his grip during the process. After writing his “Jisei” or death poem (in the “waka style that had five lines of five, seven, seven, five, and seven syllables), he would consume a ceremonial drink of sake of which the kaishakunin would also partake.

The fallen warrior would then hold the tantō and plunged it into his abdomen, making a left-to-right cut followed by a slight cut upwards. What would follow was the warrior would lean forward and stretch out his neck, the kaishaku would then stand on his feet; a moment of attention in preparation for the precise movement of severing the head from the body, he would deal the decisive blow and drop the curtain on the ritual. The kaishaku would make a low bow, wipe the blood from his sword and retire himself from the stage. This process would only be carried out at a Buddhist temple or a traditional Japanese garden.

seppuku

 

Initially, the term “samurai” was used in reference to those of 6th rank or below, for example public servants. As the farmers continued to sell their lands and a class system began to grow, those with significant wealth and land began to require the service of dedicated people to protect their interests and well being, which later on eventually led to the more modern samurai class.

During the Heian period, the word “Shogun” first came to be, however they were not imbued with power of governance until the start of the 13th century. They were skilled warriors proficient in mounted combat on horses and Kyūdō (Archery). A bunch of standalone clans originally established by farmers had taken up arms in order to protect their personal interests from the magistrates sent to oversee their lands & collect taxes from them. These clans gradually formed alliances and unified together to protect themselves against other powerful clans, and by the time the mid-Heian period arrived they had adopted the symbolic Japanese armor & weapons, and ultimately laid the foundations of Bushidō, their ethical code.

The Samurai class rose to power over the Imperial court during the Kamakura era when Kiyomori Taira seized majority of power of the central government after the Heiji Rebellion of 1160 and established the first samurai-dominated government and relegated the Emperor to merely a figurehead status. Twenty years later, the Taira clan and Minamoto clan clashed again, only this time the Minamoto clan emerged victorious; their leader Minamoto no Yoritomo established government and it was termed as the Kamakura Bakufu, or Kamakura Shogunate from that point onwards. A subsequent revolution, or rather a transition took place from the time of the Kamakura shogunate to the Edo era, when the Samurai became the unchallenged rulers of what could be called a “centralized feudal” form of government.

The younger brother of Minamoto no Yoritomo; Minamoto no Yoshitsune (childhood name – Ushiwakamaru) and his retainer, Benkei are also notable figures during the transition from Heian era to Kamakura era. They have been featured significantly in Japanese literature as well as theater forms such as Kabuki and Noh plays. A granite monument, immortalizing Benkei’s fated encounter with Yoshitsune, can be found erected near the modern day Gojo bridge on the Kamogawa River in Kyoto. The monument lies at the east end of the bridge.

statue of yoshitsune and benkei gojo ohashi

 

In September of the year 1600, Tokugawa Ieyasu won a decisive and well-known victory over rival factions, including the supporters of Hideyoshi’s heir, Hideyori. The Tokugawa government, based in the new capital at Edo (present Tokyo), achieved almost unparalleled control over the country which lasted more than 260 years, starting from 1600 to 1868. The regime’s unprecedented long term was achieved through excellent social control over the majority of the population, including the daimyo & their vassals. For over two hundred years since the Edo era began, the country’s borders were closed to all outsiders with the exception of one port at Nagasaki, through which only the Dutch traders would be allowed to operate under supervision. For these and other reasons, the period during Tokugawa rule was a period of order and peace, when the samurai were called upon to fulfill various bureaucratic roles.

The imperial court held barely any real authority over the military from 1185 to 1868, although they still maintained the power to appoint the shogun. In 1853, a fleet of “Black Ships” led by Commodore Matthew Perry took off the coast of Japan, threatening military action unless the government ended its policy of national seclusion from the world. This provided enough pretext for samurai from various southwestern domains to band together and overthrow the shogunate. In 1868, direct imperial rule was finally restored after almost 700 years. Many prominent daimyo, particularly those who helped to overthrow the shogunate were invited to participate in the new government; but the samurai were effectively stripped almost completely of their power during the span of the first decade of the Meiji period. They were instructed to hand over their domains to the emperor; their stipends reduced through process of taxation and various other measures, and compelled to relinquish their weapons. In effect, the Samurai spontaneously alienated themselves from the central government and tensions continued to grow between them. Due to the radical changes that aimed at diminishing the power of the feudal domains, the imposing of taxes and the consecutive dissolution of the samurai status and title that the bushi wielded led to the Satsuma Rebellion.

The events that took place in 1877 would effectively bring an end to a steady legacy of the class of warriors, the Samurai. Saigō Takamori, who has been quoted as the last Samurai, led a 40,000 strong force against an army of 300,000 Imperial troops which culminated finally at the Battle of Shiroyama with his death. His death however, consists of differing accounts explaining the nature of his death.

Saigo Takamori

 

In 1889 a new constitution was enacted, and the Diet—Japan’s first modern legislative body—was effectively founded. In the span of a few years, Japan was ultimately transformed from a nation of feudal warring states to a parliamentary government. The Samurai and their legacy would still live on in other manifestations that was passed down from one generation to another through an inherent part of their culture.

IN PRACTICE

Let’s talk about Kenjutsu first, where it all began. Kenjutsu is an umbrella term associated with all schools (aka koryū) of Japanese swordsmanship that predate the Meiji Era. Its origin lies with the samurai class of feudal Japan. It is believed that the oldest schools of Kenjutsu arose during the Muromachi period (1336 to 1573 AD) of Japan. Three major schools that form as the ancestor for many descendant styles emerged during this period, as noted:

  • Kage-ryū (Aizu) (Aisukage ryū)
  • Chūjō-ryū
  • Tenshin Shōden Katori Shintō-ryū

Kenjutsu schools saw the most proliferation during the Edo period (1603 – 1868). In the beginning of the 19th century, the shinai and protective armor (Bogu) was developed and it enabled the practitioners to use full speed techniques in sparring while reducing risk and serious bodily harm to a minimum. Until this point, Kenjutsu primarily consisted of basic practice of techniques and Kata; using bokuto or shinken.

kenjutsu

 

You may be thinking what Kata is. Kata is literally “form” and refers to the pre-established, choreographed patterns of movements which are practiced either solo or in pairs. Kata is truly what can be defined as the essence of the art of Kenjutsu. It is Kata which gave form to modern day Kendo. Kata can be seen in Aikido, Judo, Kendo and Karate; interestingly enough, kata is present in the theater form of Kabuki and Tea ceremony schools (Chado) as well. In short, Kata embodies the aspect of discipline in Kenjutsu.

The basic goal of kata is meant to preserve and pass on proven techniques to the successor of the art and also to practice self-defense. By practicing in a continuous repetitive manner the practitioner develops the ability to execute the techniques & movements in a very natural, reflex-like manner. For the beginners, when performing kata, the motion and dynamics may appear to be stilted. However this is done in the conjunction of avoiding injury and improving form. The professionals who exhibit amazing form and grace avoid serious injury only by exhibiting a high level of sensitivity and attention to important concepts that they have trained for a long time.

Kendo’s transition from Kenjutsu began when Naganuma Shirōzaemon Kunisato introduced bamboo practice swords (shinai) and armor (bōgu) during the Shotoku Era (1711-1715) and established a training method built around it. Several noteworthy people went on to improve the design and build of the shinai and bogu after that and dedicated their entire life to polish it.

kendo practice

 

During the middle of the 18th century, a kendo practitioner known as Chuto Nakanishi developed the modern four- piece shinai and the gloves aka kote. The do (chestplate) and men (helmet) followed, and by the end of the century, the practice armor and weapons had been refined into more or less the form they are used today. In 1886, the Japanese Police Force gathered together the different types of kata from various kenjutsu schools into a standardized set for homogenized training purposes. Work on standardizing the kata in kenjutsu continued for years, until in 1912 an edict was released by the Dai Nippon Butoku Kai (established in 1895). This edict highlighted a lack of unity in teaching and introduced a standardized core curriculum to which the kenjutsu schools would add their own distinctive techniques. This core curriculum and its ten kata effectively evolved into the modern martial art form of kendo. This point could be regarded as the end of the development of Kata in Kendo and it was done in order to aim for the unification of many schools to empower them to pass on the original techniques and the true spirit of the Japanese sword.

Just like Kenjutsu and Kendo, we have Iaijutsu and Iaido, as well as Battōjutsu and Battōdo. Iaijutsu refers to the art of drawing the sword, while Battōjutsu refers to the craft of drawing the sword; the subtle difference here being that Battōjutsu was more technical in nature and purpose with focus on distancing, timing and targeting, whereas Iaijutsu was practiced to formulate the methodology of a counterattack. To be honest, these two terms are often used interchangeably with each other owing to major similarities in theory and practice.

JAPANESE SWORD TYPES & VISUAL INDEX

nihonto types
Generally, the swords are classified by length. A Daito is a sword with a blade longer than two shaku (1 shaku = 11.9 inches). A Wakizashi is between one and two shaku in length, and a Tanto is less than one shaku.

There are lots of other names. The most common one, Katana, refers to the type of sword people are most acquainted with; a daito is worn stuck through the obi (belt) with the edge facing upwards. A Tachi is an older style of sword, slightly longer & more curved, slung on cords with the edge down, usually in a cavalry style. A Nodachi is simply a bigger version of a tachi, with quite a long handle, which is worn by slinging it over the back for battlefield applications. A Kodachi is basically a smaller tachi. A Wakizashi is also a short sword; although of a newer style (kodachi is often used as a generic term for short sword, and so may also be used to refer to a wakizashi). A Chokuto, or Ken, is a old style straight edged sword.

A Katana for example, would have two distinct versions of mounting depending on the nature of its usage. When the sword is in use, meant to be worn by its owner, the mount that it would have is called “Koshirae”, which would be ornate in nature, not simply for function, but also to represent the “mon” or family crest of the owner. When the sword was not in use, and was intended to be stored for long term preservation; the alternate mount that would be made for the sword was known as the “Shirasaya”, a rather featureless and aesthetically calm in nature to represent the lack of necessity for its use. A dedicated woodcarver would sometimes see to the making of both the koshirae and shirasaya. These two types of mounts are seen in most of the other types of blade as well which were defined in the previous paragraph.

Sword part names

 

MAKING THE BLADE

The Swordsmith is the one who forges the actual blade. He starts with a special kind of traditional Japanese steel called tamahagane (aka iron sand), and works with hammer and forge to fold it anywhere from half a dozen to a dozen number of times, maybe more. There are two processes broadly, one of which is to make core steel (shinganae) and the other is to make the jacket steel (kawagane). Kawagane is effectively folded more times than the other and so it ends up being stiffer, harder and less ductile than the shinganae. In the simplest construction, a piece of kawagane is folded around the shinganae to form a jacketed enclosed core. Thus the core of the sword, the shinganae allows the sword to flex instead of breaking off on direct impact, and the kawagane allows it to take on the ultimate razor edge. More complicated construction methods are known to produce swords with as many as 5 different pieces of steel, all forged differently.

The folding process is used to closely control the uniformity and amount of carbon in the steel. Accomplished smiths are known to tell by eye to within one tenth of a percent of the carbon content in a piece of steel.

When the basic blank has been constructed, the smith will continue to work on what is essentially a metal bar at that point into the shape of the sword. When the forging is done, the blade has achieved the correct length, curvature and more or less a general shape, but still lacks a finish and certain aspects of the various edges and features. The smith will then use coarse grain polishing stones to further define the blade’s final form before passing it onto the polisher.

 

The polisher uses successive grades of polishing stones to finish the blade. He is responsible for the famous edge, but that is still only one part of his job. His real job is to bring out the beauty of the smiths art. The beautiful “Hamon” that becomes characteristic of the beauty of the sword from within. Properly polished, the utter complexity of the construction and hundreds of layers is revealed. Improperly polished, the blade is ruined forever. Sword polishers are paid a premium while restoring antique or high valued swords in modern day due to the precision and exclusive nature of the object, as the sword itself may be worth millions of yen.

A woodcarver makes the saya (scabbard) for the sword. Each saya is custom carved out of wood from the “ho” tree (magnolia). The actual blade is required to complete the work for the saya, as the carver will use it as a template to make a properly fitting saya based around the blade.

A jeweler is responsible for making the habaki, the small collar over the hand guard, nonetheless a critical metal piece which is constructed to fit exactly on the blade next to the tang, as it provides the snug fit which keeps the blade from rattling around in the saya.

Further craftsmen make the finishing. Often there are separate craftsmen for the tsuka (the handle), tsuba ( the hand guard) and menuki (the ornaments at the hilt).

MORE THAN A WARRIOR

Many people envision the Samurai basically as great warriors of repute, strong to their code and loyal to a fault. However, they have contributed much more towards Japanese society and culture beyond their knowledge of warfare.

The Samurai adopted the teachings of Buddhism, Shintoism and Zen meditation, and even Confucianism to an extent. In that sense, it can’t really be considered as a surprise that many samurai even gave up on fighting and violence altogether and converted to monks at some point in their lives. Some of them have been reported to be killed during battles as they came to terms at that very moment with the understanding about the futility in violence.

Samurai Practicing Tea Ceremony
The samurai were probably the foremost patron of the arts. From being proficient in kanji, to patrons and practitioners of chado (tea ceremony), ink painting, calligraphy, nurturing and proliferation of the creation of rock gardens, poetry, to patronizing and even participating in Noh and Kyogen forms of theater; the samurai did it all. Samurai who were unemployed during the Edo period often used to make Wagasa (Japanese oil-paper umbrella) as a secondary occupation.

One could say that the Samurai contributed to a great extent to what Japan as a country is visualized in the present day and age across the world. A country that has beautifully amalgamated the old and the new together.

 

Thank You for Reading.

Daryl

Daryl (pseudonym), Senior Editor & Co-founder at Nihonden. Working behind the curtain mostly; doing quality checks and editing articles, but his efficacy at writing full-blown research pieces cannot be veiled.

  • Abhimanyu

    Amazing man, I surely can’t read it all but really man, well done 😀