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The Hidden Relevance of Japanese Historical Influences

by Inoue Kazuki

In the waning days of the Ashikaga Shogunate in the 1470s, an event later known as the Onin War broke out, near Kyoto, ravaging areas of the old capitol. From 1467 to a decade onward, the powerful houses within the Bakufu fought to control the direction of the Ashikaga Shogunate. Thus, as the Yamana and Hosokawa disputed, any power left to the Shogunate waned entirely, as national cohesion was lost in favor of provincial lords with supreme power over their own domains. This period would be later known as the Sengoku Jidai, ‘The Warring States’ Era’, in which for nearly a century, the provinces of the Japanese Empire were in a state of perpetual civil war. This period brought forth many calamities, yet, it shaped the nation in both culture and military tradition. Japan already possessed a strong military history, but nevertheless, it would be the Sengoku that truly developed a society which respected the role of the soldier at its pinnacle. From this were born many things, ranging from high-minded concepts like Bushido (The way of the warrior), and later, codified martial arts. Even fantasies, fictions, and sometimes exaggerated military histories arose from this military tradition. The Sengoku served as the first in many profound influences over Japanese society that still has an impact today.

What needs to be examined most fully is if significant periods, events and concepts have proportionately affected Japanese society, and in what ways can positive effects be drawn from them, and negative ones offset. There is much room for interpretation, as no data is essentially of the empirical type in such a discussion. However, in examining periods of history, influential institutions such as the samurai, and concepts that have permeated society, we can glimpse at how the past has affected the present and will do the same to the future.

Among these there are many influence. Buddhism certainly saw a time of destruction amongst its followers, usually referred to as the ‘mappo’, meaning a period in which morals were lost and it was difficult to reach enlightenment alone, during which Buddhist law declined and disappeared 1. Here, a philosophy of living in stride with the blows the world dealt people certainly began to appear, and thus Amida-based sects of Mahayana Buddhism gained popularity. It is easy to see why, for during this time, the samurai fought in the plains, ronin (masterless, unemployed samurai) robbed along the roads, and peasants were forced to toil in the fields or go into battle as conscripts. Also, the idea of hard work and progress through said means developed greatly. Much owing to the chaos, a great amount of social mobility existed, allowing farmers to become soldiers, and vice versa. One such instance, and by and large the most famous, is that of Hayashi (Toyotomi) Hideyoshi, of Owari, who started life at lowly birth, became a sandal bearer, and eventually worked his way up the ranks. By 1582, he was the dictator of Japan, serving as one of it’s famed Three Unifiers. The Japanese work-ethic displayed by peoples of nearly every walk of life certainly remained long after the Sengoku. But perhaps the greatest series of developments were those involving the samurai, the provincial, noble landed and unlanded warriors of Japan.

Originally, the ‘samurai’ were simply nobility that fought on horseback, utilizing a bow and a type of one-edged sword. These men ended up figuring greatly in history from the second millennia C.E. forward. 2 This sort of quaint beginning, astride mounts, using archery to take down opponents, gave way to the fighting men of the Sengoku and Muromachi periods. But what made them stand out amongst other legions of fighting men, and why did they influence Japan so strongly? Yamamoto Tsunetomo, a noted samurai author, wrote once that, 'The way of samurai is found in death,' 3 a phrase, which, while certainly a little romanticized, did much to outline just how determined the samurai of Japan could be. In many instances, the samurai displayed acts of great bravery in the face of odds, choosing to die before dishonoring their name. Certainly, there are as many instances to the contrary, most notably Akechi Mitsuhide’s betrayal of Oda Nobunaga in 1582. The samurai themselves evolved from the Uji 4 warrior clans which had begun to dominate Japanese politics beginning in the Nara-jidai onward. By 794 C.E., Japan was firmly on the path of centralized government under the influence of noble houses serving an Emperor. While, nominally, the samurai ‘served’ this figure, it occurred in many instances that they in fact had other priorities, and thus the uji, and successively the shugo constables and then daimyo lords consolidated power by which they claimed not from Imperial legitimacy, but from military might. It was this thinking of ‘militarized legitimacy’ that made the successive forms of government in Japan quite unique, thanks to the samurai. But, during the power vacuum of the Sengoku Jidai, the samurai demonstrated that security lay in the ability to marshal troops, and demonstrate martial ability. Their emphasis on shame, practicality, and an appreciation for aestheticism was paralleled by many Buddhist sects, which spread across the country. So while the samurai themselves may have believed differently from the majority of the populace, their ideas were in stride with what many others were indeed preaching. Many other ideas filtered through Japanese society at this time, including the teachings written in the Analects of Confucius. This helped ingratiate into society a sense of filial piety and a very family-oriented existence. What can be said of the overall effect of influences such as these on Japanese society are ones that are reflected within less empirical measures and observation. The Japanese still enjoy something of a stratified society, and developed their own concepts as a result. These ideas of a person’s role in society, and responsibility, conflicting with their own personal feelings: giri and ninjo. It represents the constant struggle of a person in society to act within their station, means, and responsibility, but also to follow their hearts. As much as many Japanese would like to deny subconscious adherence to previous ideas, it is readily reflected in their balancing acts of business, work, pleasure, religious obligations and rites, and family life. As with any society, a person with giri earns respect. Several plays about this (giri-ninjo plays) are still quite popular.

The most misunderstood aspect of the samurai is bushido. It is written from three characters: Bu (senso, bu - war), shi (actor of an action, one who does - together, warrior) and Do (michi, path or way, manner of doing). Literally speaking, Bushido was the ‘Way of the Warrior’. Many treatises have been written on the subject, including Yamamoto’s controversial and romantic work, Hagakure (Hidden Beneath Leaves). While making very eloquent and idealized points (none of which he was ever able to practice-Hagakure was written a good deal after the last major military campaign) about how samurai should act in war, he did have a valid point to make, regarding Bushido’s meaning; 'the person who would be able to answer this promptly is rare. This is because it has not been established in one’s mind beforehand.' 5 It is commonly accepted though, that Bushido refers to a set of ideals a warrior should follow. These were very varied, but some argue it was Confucian in nature, 6 while yet others implied it had to do with the way of Heaven, as argued by the founder of Yagyu Shinkage Ryu Kenjutsu. 7 Another point to be made was that it also consisted of the various ‘house codes’ that certain Daimyo made their samurai follow. Among these were:

1. Do not give a command or administrative position to anyone who lacks ability, even if his family has served the [Asakura family] for generations. 8
2. Those retainers who lack special talent or positions, but who are steadfast must be treated with compassion and understanding. Those who are effeminate may still be used as attendants or messengers if their demeanor is outstanding, and they must not be dismissed lightly. However, if they lack both [steadfastness and good deportment], then it is useless to retain them. 9
3. Pay proper reverence to the gods and the Buddha. When your thoughts are in accord with the Buddha's, you will gain more power. If your domination over others issues from your evil thoughts, you will be exposed, you are doomed. Next, devote yourselves to the study of Zen. Zen has no secrets other than seriously thinking about birth-and-death. 10

These assorted codes (from the Asakura and Toyotomi houses), serve as a window into how samurai were governed. This can also be classified as Bushido. Samurai were expected to act with loyalty to their lords, and demonstrate filial piety. The strictness of how samurai acted depended on each individual, but normally it was quite strict indeed. Failure to meet requirements, if one was shamed, or if they committed a crime against someone of import, they would be ordered to commit ritual suicide, known in Japanese as seppuku. In this act, samurai would disembowel themselves with the short sword, in effort to erase their dishonor. Seppuku eventually became highly codified in Edo times. Similarly, Yamamoto’s writings were adopted by the Tokugawa Bakufu in the Edo period, for so strict were his teachings. Mainly a vehicle for stability, the Bakufu used this to keep the samurai under tight watch. This is when the highly romanticized versions of Bushido begin to gain popularity amongst people who viewed samurai who fought in the past, through a retrospective lens of peace. Its citation throughout the years reflects a very constant influence of old concepts on new generations, notably with the deviant, and twisted use of Bushido to rally soldiers of the Imperial Japanese Army and Navy, in the era of World War II.

The acts in the Edo-Jidai demonstrated some of the more ideal versions of Bushido. The most famous of these is Oishi Kuranosuke’s revenge for Lord Asano of Ako, called the yon-ju-nana no ronin-jiken or ‘The Forty-Seven Ronin’ Incident. 11 In 1703, two years had passed since Lord Asano had acted out of turn and injured another samurai, and had been ordered to commit suicide. The act done, Oishi and forty-six other members of Asano’s men, now masterless, conspired to avenge their lord, which they did in 1703.Oishi led his group to Lord Kira’s estate, and in the winter, assassinated the man who dishonored their departed lord. The Bakufu deemed them all criminals, but not without a sense of grudging respect. Each one of them committed suicide soon thereafter, and were regarded as national heroes, despite their criminal actions. So popular and respected they were, that their burial site became a place of pilgrimage to many, and is a very popular shrine now. Such actions and popular instances of Bushido served to imprint a mark upon Japanese people about how honor and loyalty worked. It certainly stirred people to believe that the samurai were paragons of honor.

Yet another aspect of this collective of samurai and circumstances from the Sengoku was the development of codified martial arts. Today, Japanese koryu or, ‘old styles’ of martial arts are practiced across Japan by all walks of life, as well as around the world. Among the most famous of these are Kenjutsu (Swordsmanship) and Iaijutsu (Art of Sword-drawing). These were both arts practiced by the samurai, if in something of a less structured way. At the end of the Sengoku, after the battle of Sekigahara in 1600, which decided the fate of Japan for the next two-and-a-half centuries, 12 many talented swordsmen such as Yagyu Sekishusai (who founded the Yagyu-derived martial arts) and Miyamoto Musashi, formed their own schools after having gained much experience. Miyamoto, reportedly, had never lost a duel, winning over sixty before he passed away in the mid 1600s, 13 yet not before founding the Miyamoto Niten Ichi Ryu of Kenjutsu. Similarly, in the late 1600s to early 1700s, Kondo Uchikuranosuke, a talented man who was supposedly charismatic, founded Tennen Rishin Ryu Kenjutsu. The Kyoto Shinsengumi would later make this style famous, and it’s leader, Kondo’s descendant and future dojo leader, Kondo Isami. 14 These men were a band of 300 who fought for the Tokugawa to preserve peace in Kyoto during the time leading up to the Meiji Restoration, and were killed nearly to the man, becoming national icons of loyalty. But to understand the import of Kenjutsu, it is quite essential to understand what Kenjutsu was. Loosely defined, Kenjutsu is the art of using the one-edged katana sword, using slices and some thrusts to deal massive damage. Like many martial arts, it is very rigid, and possessed many teachings that many times, were kept secret. After the Sengoku, rival schools competed for primacy in displaying their abilities. 15 Even today, this martial tradition is preserved due to its long-enjoyed popularity. Kenjutsu inspired what is practiced in many high schools across Japan today, a sport/and pseudo-martial art known as Kendo (Way of the Sword).

These martial traditions, spiritual and philosophical traditions, and sources of popular culture were largely the result of samurai. In point of fact, samurai are the focus of much literature, and even praise. Yoshikawa Eiji, in his historical fiction work Taiko, in which he wrote in detail (while at times taking license) the life of Toyotomi Hideyoshi. In his book he described Azuchi castle, built by Oda Nobunaga, as a center of culture and art. 16 Other great staples of Japanese popular culture include the works of Ryotaro Shiba (a self-styled historian and writer) who wrote Moeyoken (Burning Sword), one of his many records of the Shinsengumi, based off of journals and eyewitness accounts, but adding his own flavor to the story. Among other works are those cinema classics of Kurosawa Akira, (Nanatsu no Samurai, Yojimbo, Sanjuro), which even after fifty years, still have a strong following both in Japan and abroad. The ideals the samurai were supposed to have exercised during the Sengoku and later periods captivated people, and made them imagine. The period of chaos, and the warriors in it caused much good. They built castle-towns that flourished, they contributed to art, poetry, religion, and philosophy, as well as war-arts (Bujutsu). However, they also did much harm.

Thus we see the dualistic nature of the impacts of all these things upon Japan. The samurai Tokugawa Bakufu arguably held back progress for Japan for 264 years, with it’s Sakoku (Closed/Chained country) foreign affairs, which isolated Japan for two centuries. 17 This not only made the Japanese a xenophobic people, but also held them back from attaining further technological advancements. It allowed Japan to develop a sense of national superiority, and eventually led to the misapplication and propaganda of Bushido in World War II. 18 Quite unlike the nihon-to (Japanese sword), Bushido, Kokutai, Sakoku, and other ideas were double-edged swords, with the power to bring about change as well as great harm, not only to the Japanese themselves, but others around them. It even can cause cultural shock amongst the Japanese. Mishima Yukio, (Sun and Steel, The Sound of Waves), a popular writer who committed seppuku in the early 70’s after storming a police station’s commandant’s office, wrote often of Bushido and the ideas of being a warrior. That, along with the distortions of World War II, made the rich military tradition of Japan a taboo topic for discussion for nearly half a century. So rocking was it, that the Japanese question their identity constantly, and books about the Japanese by foreign authors ranks among the highest in the publishing industry there. 19

However, a question that has been asked recently keeps re-appearing: how true are the stereotypes of Bushido? Were the samurai what they were all exalted to be, by many? Certainly by the Edo-Jidai the samurai were no longer warriors, but underpaid bureaucrats. Yet the Sengoku serves as an era for speculation by many. Yet, it should seem easy to answer this question.

The Sengoku, as mentioned before, was marked by many wars between provinces, and a constantly shifting political arena. This required quick thinking and quick action. Wars changed with every passing day. Even on the battlefield, the opportunity for profit presented itself. To say that every samurai adhered strictly to Bushido, and was unquestionably loyal is severe folly, simply because that renders them machines, and not human beings. Human beings are things of passion, of prejudice, of greed, of want, of emotions. By this mere fact, the ‘ideal’ of the samurai is shattered, something Yamamoto could never refute in his writings. It is simply too difficult to believe that samurai did not commit acts of dishonor, or lacked loyalty in many instances (Mitsuhide in 1582, Tokugawa Ieyasu’s rebellion against Imagawa Yoshimoto at the battle of Okehazama, Toyotomi Hideyori’s Osaka Campaign in 1615). This is a sometimes ignored, but often-written-about topic in fiction. The popularized image, however, that the Japanese would have foreigners. They would have people who adhered to samurai ideals were just as honorable as they were portrayed in literature, perhaps to assuage their fears that the world still views them as backwards. Several incidents like World War II left Japan striving to find a non-nationalistic, national identity. This search for an oxymoron has lead them to idealize the past at times. A very good instance of this, is how very recently the Ministry of Education for a certain prefecture, hired a board member who was the author of a controversial history textbook. This textbook lacked a reference to the sex slaves Japan pressed into serve, taken from ranks of Korean and Chinese women. Instead they were obliquely referenced as ‘comfort women’; a term that still rightfully instills anger in many. 20

What conclusions can be drawn from this? Obviously any conclusion that can be made here should reflect what impacts have been made as well as what can be done to help the society improve as a whole. Certainly many aspects of these impacts should be dropped, and others reinforced. But now it is the time to describe exactly what has happened, and what can happen henceforth. It is important to understand though, that these trends represent hundreds of years of influence from many areas of life. No one thing can be easily changed, or easily dismissed. It is also important to ask, what aspects of these influences make the Japanese who they are, and why are they important or relevant today? There are numerous issues. Among the most important of these are: the military and cultural traditions of Japan, the revitalization of Japanese society through such traditions, as well as the ability to appreciate where a people has come from.

The cultural tradition of Japan is not just in the arts and poetry, or the Cult of Tea 21 , or in song. It lies also in the inherent influences of the wars it fought against itself, the glory of the warriors it bore from its womb, as well as the hard-won freedoms they attained in revolutions, not to mention the zeal with which they tried to unify themselves. As of late, there has been much ado about shying away from a militarist standpoint. At times the Japanese of the modern day try to forget the traditions their warriors made popular, while showing signs of believing in them nonetheless. Japan was, and still is, a culture of shame. People in Japan see things in terms of shame, good reputation, good works, ill deeds, honor, and the like. Their overlords in this manner influenced them, because none other than the warriors imposed humility. However, this shame need not extend to shame for their own traditions. Traditional arts such as Kenjutsu and Iaijutsu grow smaller, as focus is on western things, even amidst a severe crisis of national identity. It should be said that the Japanese cannot-and should not-escape their martial tradition for the sake of selective amnesia over a world war.

Even more important is the understanding that said traditions have their limits and should be put into context. All too often does Bushido get interpreted in extreme terms. There is also the issue of xenophobia, which was a direct result of Kokutai. Had the Japanese known to expand outward in an accepting manner, Japan would very likely be better off today, without such issues as discrimination against foreigners. Along with this, they might have avoided getting into the Second World War altogether. That, in and of itself, shows the dire need for realignment, reassessment, and revitalization of traditional Japanese ways, even if some of them are militant. It is not the ‘militant’ nature that need be emphasized, but the philosophies behind them---loyalty, courage, humility, generosity, forbearance, and many traditional Buddhist values-that can take root in the current, disillusioned society. Another aspect of this is also waking up to the reality which is Japan. Books like Hagakure painted Bushido, Japan, Japanese spirit, people, and warriors, in all too fair a light. That is why so many stories today of samurai are still popular, because they represent ideals. But the sooner the Japanese realize that ideals are sometimes false, the easier it will be for them to accept themselves. Part of disillusionment involves disappointment. When Japan, at the end of WWII, awoke harshly to its own situation, it was horrified. 22 The sooner people are able to accept certain things at less than face-value, the easier it will be for Japan to be able to rebuild its traditions and make them more reflective of the realities behind them. It is a call for new thinkers to interpret old social standards and remake them into new ones which fit the present day. Japan’s time for lamentation should thus come to an end.

Part of this comes from a disinterest in history. The history of Japan is a rich and diverse one, filled with charismatic people, despotic tyrants and their opposite, magnanimous rulers, brave soldiers, cowards, traitors, loyalists, and so on and so forth. The Japanese buy books constantly about themselves, relying on a foreign interpretation of who they are to define themselves. Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, 'Do not seek yourself outside yourself.' 23 The Japanese Identity, as it were, lurks just beneath the surface. It can be seen in how people devour old Chambara (movies about samurai) films, how they like reading Manga about samurai who fought for their families and towns. It can be seen in how tea ceremony is still practiced. Yet it is as if the Japanese ask themselves: what has influenced us? What can we do to be Japanese, in a world of globalization? The answer is quite simple: turn to history, and the influences, impacts, and motives can be quite clear. They need only recall their national heroes, their favorite stories, their festivals. This extends beyond the previously mentioned military traditions, and encompasses all of Japanese societal values and arts. As a person writing about Japan, the author offers these conclusions about the society’s status. The study of Japanese history will be the only way in which it will effectively impact Japan significantly in the years to come. To understand what one is, one has to look at where they have been and where they came from. It is perhaps very cliché, but not untrue, to say that without an understanding of history, one can commit the same mistakes of old. Here, the mistake would be in willfully ignoring the roots of an entire culture, from Nara period court life, and its slow trickle-down of education, to the tradition of farming and community responsibility in the Edo period. While the samurai may have had all the glory, the things they fought for are what really left the lasting impressions. This is the value that needs to be discovered by the Japanese, and only for themselves.

It can be said that Japan was shaped by war. This is true to a great extent. But more so Japan was shaped by the want to end wars, the want to install peace. True warriors, it is said by many, do not fight for the sake of fighting. When something is Evil, a person strikes it down, and in doing so, spare the lives of many, 24 so said Yagyu Munenori, perhaps in not as many words. People made all the Sengoku, the Samurai, the martial arts of Japan, the traditions of Japan. And it is people that can keep the influences of these moderated and positive. There is no purpose in studying history if one ignores the lessons it can teach each person about themselves and the people around them. People are what define Bushido, and the samurai were people, as were the farmers, merchants, and artisans they dominated. As much writing as there has been so far on this subject, no amount of it will change one important fact: the importance of things is all about the importance these same people, now hundreds of years removed from their feudal ancestors, shall place on it. The Japanese achieved self-unification through terrible battles, however, as Okakura Kakuzo explained it, while referencing the ancient Essays on Idleness, that it is really an allowance of understanding one another that brings real progress. Thusly it is the understanding of these facts of the past, that will bring Japan a better future. 25


1. 1. Akamatsu, Paul, Meiji 1868: Revolution and Counter-revolutions in Japan, Harper and Row Publishers, 1972
2. Emerson, Ralph Waldo, The Essential Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, (The Existentialist); Modern Library Publishing, 2000
3. Hane, Mikiso, Ph.D., Japan: A Historical Survey, Scribner Publishing, 1972
4. Mason, R.H.P., Caiger, J.G, A History of Japan, Tuttle Publishing, 2004
5. Mishima, Yukio, Sun and Steel, Kodansha Europe, 1982
6. Miyamoto Musashi, Gorin no Sho (The Book of Five Rings); William Scott Wilson trans. Kodansha International, 2003
7. Okakura Kakuzo, Cha no Hon (The Book of Tea) Kodansha International, 1989 ed.
8. Reischauer, Edwin O. Japan, The Story of a Nation, Charles E. Tuttle Co. 1972
9. Tanaka, Yoshio; Japan As it Is: A Bilingual Guide, Gakken, 1990
10. Yagyu, Munenori; Heiho Kadensho (The Life-Giving Sword, Secret teachings of the House of the Shogun), William Scott Wilson Trans. Kodansha Int. 2002
11. Yamamoto, Tsunetomo; Hagakure, Kodansha Int. 2002
12. Yoshikawa, Eiji, Taiko, Kodansha International, 2003

Electronic Sources:
1. Daimyo House Codes, The Samurai Archives, Dec. 1st 2004
2. Revisionist text author to join Saitama Education Board, The Japan Times, December 7th 2004


1. Varley, Japanese Culture pg. 70 (See bib)
2. Reischauer, Story of A Nation, pg. 45
3. Yamamoto, Hagakure, pg.17
4. Reischauer, pg. 45
5. Yamamoto, 17
6. Reischauer, 91
7. Yagyu, Munenori, Heiho Kadensho, pg. 69
8. Daimyo House Codes, as translated by the Samurai Archives (see bib)
9. Ibid.
10. Ibid.
11. Varley, 208, 209
12. Mason & Caiger, A History of Japan, pg 191
13. Miyamoto Musashi, Gorin no Sho, pg. 20
14. Akamatsu, Meiji 1868, pg 177
15. see Heiho Kadensho and Gorin no Sho
16. Yoshikawa, Eiji, Taiko
17. Reischauer, 109, Varley, 232
18. Reischauer, 200-214
19. Tanaka Yoshio, Japan as it is, pg. 114
20. The Japan Times, Revisionist text author to join Saitama education board (see works cited/bib)
21. Okakura, Cha no Hon, pg 29
22. Reischauer
23. Emerson, Ralph Waldo, The Existentialist
24. Yagyu, Heiho Kadensho
25. Okakura, Cha no Hon

Inoue Kazuki is long time student and researcher of Japanese History and Language, instructed in both Tennen Rishin Ryu Kenjutsu and Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu Iaijutsu. He currently teaches Shintoki Ryu Kenjutsu in the Eastern United States.