About that “Samurai” Thing…


Picture from Wikimedia Commons, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Various_gusoku_met_museum.jpg

I am fairly frequently asked the question, “what are you studying?” With most, I feel justified stating “history,” and leaving it at that. However, at times it has been necessary to elaborate upon this answer. I study Japanese history, of course. Yet I very often make the mistake of being overly-specific.

“The Heian Period” I say.

“What?” Comes the answer.

“Classical Japan,” I tell them. “794-1192.”

To this, they reply: “Oh, so that’s samurai and the shoguns!”

I’ve had to correct this assumption so many times that I’ve decided to put the facts down in writing, for all to see. Not that anyone will actually look. I know better than that. There are enough well-researched texts on Japanese History to fill a good-sized library, but no one seems to read those, either. I thought you might listen to me, since I’m not Japanese, but then neither were the McCulloughs, and a fat lot of good that did them. Ever seen their books? Didn’t think so.

That’s why I have to keep telling people I study neither samurai nor shoguns.

FACT 1: In Classical Japan, the word “samurai” did not yet exist. A similar word (saBurai) was used to described individuals of all kind who worked as servants to the court nobles. As time went on, this word increasingly referred to those servants who served in an armed capacity. At some point, the pronunciation changed to saMurai. But even as late as the 12th century, warriors were only saburai if they were in someone else’s employ. Otherwise they were tsuwamonomusha (as in “Kagemusha,” Kurosawa’s famous film about a “shadow warrior”), or bushi (as in bushidō – that one sound familiar?). They could be any of these things, but they were not samurai.

FACT 2: Classical Japan is in fact defined as the period before the shogunate was established as a permanent institution. Once the first shogun (Minamoto no Yoritomo, not of the famous films) was allowed to set up his own government in the Eastern village of Kamakura (not Edo), the Classical period was over. Before Yoritomo, the title of shogun was handed out on a case-by-case basis in times of national emergency. Yoritomo managed to hold onto it and stake a claim for himself as head of a second government on the other side of the country. This is what historians call the “dual polity,” as the Imperial Court was still a functioning and powerful organization. It would remain so until the 14th century, when the increasing militarization of Japanese society allowed the new line of shoguns to become essentially the only ruling class. Thus, there were shoguns in Classical Japan, but please stop using that word. It does not mean what you think it means.

Seriously, I should’ve just told you I studied History.