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Instruction 5-2


Early Japan | Shoguns, Samurai, and Japanese Culture

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Shoguns, Samurai, and Japanese Culture
CA GR  7 7.5.3., 7.5.4., 7.5.5., 7.5.6.

In our last Instruction, we told you a little about the history of Japan from early times up until the beginning of "early modern Japan" in the 1800's. In this Instruction, we are going to concentrate on the culture of Medieval Japan (1185 - 1600), which was different from Japan's earlier Classical Period (which featured careful calligraphy, Zen gardens and tea ceremonies).

Medieval Japan is often compared to Medieval Europe because of its warriors, castles and feudal structure. The Japanese Samurai Code is similar to the practice of chivalry by European knights. Feudal political organization, bonds between warriors and the prominence of religion were characteristic of the period in both Japan and Europe. Feudal Japan was dominated by warfare, destruction and militarism -- and Samurai warriors became the rulers of the land. The influence of Medieval Japan extended up through World War II (which ended in 1945) and echos of it can still be found in Japanese culture today.

The Rise of the Samurai

War played a central part in the history of Medieval Japan. Warring clans controlled much of the country. A clan was made up of related families -- and there was a chief at the head of each clan. These chiefs were the ancestors of Japan's imperial family. The wars were usually about land. Only 20% of the land in Japan was suitable for farming. The struggle for control of that land is what led to the rise of the Samurai. They became a class unto themselves between the 9th and 12th centuries. They were called by two names: Samurai (knight-retainers) and Bushi (warriors). Some Samurai were related to the ruling class. Others were mercenaries.

All Samurai gave their complete loyalty to their Daimyo (feudal landowner) and received land and position in return. Each Daimyo used his Samurai to protect his land, to expand his power and to gain the rights to more land. Japan's ancient Yayoi warriors (900 BC - 250 AD) had developed weapons, armor and a code -- and this evolved into a model for the medieval Samurai. Their early weapons included bows, arrows and swords. Their armor was made up of a helmet, a breastplate, arm, chest and shoulder protectors and a belly wrap. Later, protection was added for their legs and thighs. Armor changed as the type of battles changed. A big change occurred in the 5th century when horses were introduced into Japan. Another change occurred in the 15th century when guns were introduced into battle.

The common people suffered a lot during this warfare -- and they were not even allowed to have weapons. They sometimes resorted to using their farm tools to defend themselves. Some farmers even became Ninja (secret warriors or assassins).

The Samurai Code evolved from Chinese concepts of the virtues of warriors -- and evolved into two Japanese codes of chivalry known as Kyuba no michi ("The Way of Horse and Bow") and Bushido ("The Way of the Warrior").


Bushido was at the heart of the beliefs and conduct of the Samurai. The underlying philosophy of Bushido was "freedom from fear." A Samurai was expected to overcome his fear of death. This gave him the peace and power to serve his master faithfully and loyally -- and to die well if necessary. Duty was his primary obligation. Samurai were expected to lead their lives according to the ethical code of Bushido. Bushido stressed loyalty to one's master, self-discipline and respectful, ethical behavior. After a defeat, some Samurai chose to commit ritual suicide (Seppuku) rather than be captured or die a dishonorable death.

Weapons and Tactics

Samurai became expert at fighting both from horseback and on the ground. They practiced both armed and unarmed combat. The early Samurai emphasized fighting with bow and arrow and used swords only for close-in fighting and for beheading their enemies.
Battles with the Mongols in the 13th century, however, led to a change in the Samurai's fighting style. Swords began to be used more often and spears were also used. The Samurai slowly changed from fighting on horseback to fighting on foot.

Samurai typically wore two swords. One was long and the other was short. The long sword (Katana) was more than 24 inches long. The short sword (Wakizashi) was between 12 and 24 inches long. Samurai often gave names to their swords and believed that these swords were the soul of their warriorship. The first swords were straight. They were originally of Korean or Chinese design. The Samurai's desire for tougher, sharper swords for battle gave rise to the curved Japanese sword we associate with them today.

"The Way of Horse and Bow"

Every Samurai was expected to be expert at archery as well as at sword fighting. His bow was a powerful weapon for killing. and was also part of religious rituals.
Ceremonial archery emphasized archery both as an art form and as a Shinto tool. The bow was presented at sumo tournaments, Shinto rites, at holidays -- such as when a child was born -- and at specific events like coming-of-age-day. The sound of a bowstring being plucked was supposed to strike fear in the hearts of evil spirits.

With the introduction of firearms in the 1500's, the bow as a weapon almost disappeared. Today, archery is used only for recreation, for a meditative martial art or for ceremonial purposes.

The Ninja and Their Weapons

Before Tokugawa Ieyasu established himself as Shogun in 1603, there were many Ninja (secret assassin) schools in Japan. Ninja were hired by many Daimyo during the Civil War Era. When Ieyasu became Shogun, he brought all the Ninja together under his authority and changed what they did into spying for the shogunate. Many Daimyo, of course, still wanted to hire their own Ninjas. This was illegal but many did it anyway.

The Ninja had several weapons that were exclusive to them. One, the Kama, had originally been a farming tool for weeding plants. Because farmers were not allowed to carry weapons, they had learned to use their tools to defend themselves -- and of course many farmers became Ninjas. Another important Ninja weapon was the Shurikan, which was a small dagger. One version was shaped like a star and thrown with a spin. Another was shaped like a needle and thrown like an ordinary dagger. Although a Shurikan couldn't penetrate armor, it was very useful against an unarmored target. Poison was often put onto these daggers to insure a kill.

Martial Arts

Martial arts were important for the Samurai in Medieval Japan. That's because these arts were specifically designed to help the Samurai prepare for combat. Many of the martial arts came from China and the Japanese added to them. Some became further ritualized in Zen Buddhism. A Samurai warrior of the Middle Ages would be expected to be an expert in several of these arts as well as at archery and sword fighting.

Sumo Wrestling

Sumo wrestling dates back for thousands of years. The first sumo matches were a form of ritual to the gods to pray for a good harvest. They were performed along with sacred dancing and dramas within the walls of Shinto shrines. During the Nara Period (8th century) sumo was introduced into the ceremonies of the Imperial Court. A wrestling festival was held every year that included music and dancing in which the victorious wrestlers took part.

Early sumo wrestling was rough. It combined parts of boxing and wrestling and had few or no rules. At the Imperial Court, rules were formulated and techniques developed to make it safer and more like the sumo wrestling we see today. During the age of the Samurai, sumo was useful as military training. Later, ju-jitsu was developed as an offshoot of sumo. In the 17th century, there was a period of peace and prosperity. This period was marked by the rise to power of a new merchant class. Professional sumo groups were organized to entertain these merchants and other commoners -- and sumo became the national sport of Japan.

Sumo wrestlers are very popular in Japan today -- like star athletes, movie stars and pop singers in the United States. These wrestlers were heroes in the Middle Ages, too. Artists painted their pictures and they were treated to free meals by their fans. That was quite generous of the fans -- because sumo wrestlers eat a lot.

Ju-jitsu (Empty-hand fighting)

Ju-jitsu evolved over 2,500 years ago. It is the combination of many fighting techniques that either originated in Japan or were brought to Japan from neighboring China and Korea. The roots of ju-jitsu are often traced back to the legendary gods Kajima and Kadori, who were said to have used ju-jitsu techniques against the inhabitants of an eastern province as a punishment for their crimes.

After a long period of war, Japan came to a fairly peaceful time following the formation of the Tokugawa military government. During this time, the Edo period (1603-1868), the civil wars that had plagued Japan ceased. Martial arts began to use more styles that did not require the use of weapons. These styles were called empty-hand fighting (ju-jitsu). It is estimated that 750 different styles of ju-jitsu were practiced in Japan during this period.

At the end of the Edo Period, however, power was transferred back from the Shogun to the emperor. Since many Samurai had supported the Shogun, they lost status under the new government. A law was introduced making it a crime to practice the martial arts of the Samurai. Samurai were forbidden to carry their swords or similar weapons. The art of ju-jitsu nearly disappeared. It survived only because some masters began to practice it in hiding, or in other countries, until the ban was lifted in the mid-twentieth century. Ju-jitsu became the basis for new martial art styles such as judo, and is referred to as "the calm and gentle art." Ju-jito uses pressure points, kicks, sweeps, throws, grappling and other techniques are to counter an attack easily.

Judo / Karate

Judo is a modern sport which comes from ju-jitsu and from Chinese and Korean martial arts like Kung Fu and Tae-Kwan-Do. Its purpose is to use the hands and feet to throw an opponent to the ground. Karate developed in the southern Japanese island of Okinawa. The people of Okinawa were influenced both by China and by Japan. They developed their own forms of martial arts by combining Chinese boxing with other fighting forms. Early karate was known as to-de (Tang Hand) in recognition of its Chinese heritage. In the 1800's, karate was further developed. There are many legends concerning the prowess of a teacher who is said to have died undefeated. He named his system Shaolin Ryu after the legendary Chinese temple of Shaolin. Karate today is a popular sport in many countries.


Shinto and Buddhism were -- and are -- Japan's two main religions. They have co-existed for several centuries and even complement each another to some degree. Many Japanese consider themselves Buddhist, Shintoist or both.


Shinto (The Way of the Gods) is the indigenous faith of the Japanese people. It is as old as Japan itself. It does not have a founder or sacred scriptures. Shinto is a nature-based belief and is thought to have come about because of the overpowering effect of nature on Japanese life. Tsunamis and typhoons often destroyed coastal villages. Mountains dominated the landscape. Earthquakes and volcanic eruptions took place frequently.

Shinto gods are called kami. Kami are sacred spirits which take the form of things and concepts that are important to human life. These things include wind, rain, mountains, trees, rivers and fertility. Human beings become kami after they die and are revered by their families as ancestral kami. There are no absolutes in Shinto. Humans are thought to be fundamentally good. Bad things are believed to be caused by evil spirits. Therefore, the purpose of most Shinto rituals is to keep these evil spirits away by purification, prayers and offerings to the kami.

Shinto shrines are places of worship and the homes of the kami. Most shrines celebrate festivals regularly. Shinto priests perform the rituals and often live on the shrine grounds.

As we told you in our last Instruction, Buddhism came to Japan in the 6th century AD. At first there were conflicts with Shinto, but the two religions soon learned to co-exist with each other. During the early Heian period, two new Buddhist sects were introduced from China: the Tendai sect in 805 and the Shingon sect in 806.

In 1191, the Zen Sect was introduced from China. Its complicated theories especially appealed to the Samurai. According to Zen teaching, one could achieve self-enlightenment through meditation and discipline (and the Samurai were masters of discipline). Zen rapidly spread among the Samurai. Gardens of raked sand (representing water) and rocks (representing mountains) were used as places of meditation within temples. The ceremony of serving tea became a formulized Zen ritual. The tearoom or teahouse, built for this purpose, had tatami mats on the floor, shoji (sliding paper-and wood screens) for room dividers and a ceremonial alcove where scrolls of calligraphy and flower arrangements were placed. These features became central to Japanese architecture and interior design.

Other Religions

Christianity was first introduced to Japan in 1549 and was virtually stamped out a century later, surviving only in a secluded area around Nagasaki. It was reintroduced in the late 1800's. Today, Christianity has almost two million adherents in Japan. This includes many educators and political leaders. Several universities were started by Christians, including the International Christian University established in 1949.

Islam has been growing as Japanese come into contact with people from Islamic nations or learn about it in other ways. It is a small group, however, probably only in the thousands, and so far has little social influence.

Hinduism is also a small minority religion and began when other Indian-related beliefs (including Buddhism) spread to Japan from China and Korea during the 6th century.

Religious Practice Today

Religion does not play a major role in the everyday life of most Japanese. The average person typically takes part in religious rituals at ceremonies like births, weddings and funerals. He or she may visit a shrine or temple at New Year and participate in local festivals, most of which have a religious background. People seek support from Shinto by praying at a home altar or by visiting shrines. A whole range of talismans is available at these shrines to help ensure everything from traffic safety, good health and business success to good grades on a school examination. Weddings are often held in Shinto style or in Christian churches.

Death, however, is considered a source of impurity -- and is left to Buddhism or Christianity to handle. Therefore, there are virtually no Shinto cemeteries -- and most funerals are held in Buddhist or Christian style.

Traditional Music, Theatre and Dance

Japan has a long tradition of music, theatre and dance. The early Jomon people sang work songs and lullabies and performed communal music and dance as part of their worship of Shinto deities. During the Yayoi Period (300 BC - 300 AD), ritual dances were also performed. Archeologists have found clay images of dancers and musical instruments dating from this period. Some Shinto dance rituals lasted up to eight hours -- and could only be performed by men or unmarried women. Later, during the Kofun Period, dances and musical instruments were introduced from China and Korea. To encourage the spread of Buddhism, a form of music and masked drama called Gagaku was developed. It remained popular until the Middle Ages.

Theatre in the Samurai Era

A new kind of theatre developed with the rise of the Samurai class. This was Noh -- a blend of storytelling, juggling, acrobatics, harvest-ritual music and dance. There were also humorous skits between the acts of the Noh plays. These skits were called Kyogen.

During the Edo period (1600 to 1867), Kabuki (an evolution of Noh theatre in which men played both male and female parts) and Bunraku (puppet theater) were popular and can still be seen today. Some of the best-known Japanese musical instruments of the time were the 13-string Koto, the bamboo flute and the three-stringed Shamisen. All of which are still played today. So are the sacred Taiko (drums), which have been used for centuries to drive away evil spirits, bring rain, offer thanks for the crop and (in former times) call warriors for battle.


The Japanese have long been famous for their beautiful artwork. Some of their styles originally came from China, while others are entirely their own. Their appreciation for beauty and nature can be seen in paintings, statues, pottery and even gardens. Throughout Japanese history, art was not separated from daily life. It was a part of it. Traditional Japanese clothing (like the kimono) was beautifully designed. Homes and temples held small statues of Buddha, simple elegant pottery and more.

Flower arranging (Ikebana) was originally a discipline for men only and was introduced into Japan by Prince Shokotu.

Here are the main types of traditional Japanese art:

  1. Brush Painting (Sumi-e). Brush painting was introduced into Japan in the 6th and 7th centuries when Prince Shotoku and others brought Chinese art, language, writing, science, philosophy and Buddhism to Japan.
    Brush paintings usually show nature -- flowers, birds, bamboo, mountains, trees and rivers. People are seldom
    shown in these paintings because human beings were considered only a minor part of nature.
  2. Calligraphy ("beautiful writing") and paneled screens.
  3. Woodblock prints (Ukiyo-e), which were first made in the 17th century (1600's) and show "pop" culture: beautiful women, famous Kabuki actors, village scenes and so on.
  4. Ceramics (pottery and porcelain figures) and sculpture (statues, mostly of the Buddha).


Daily Life


Japan is a mountainous nation of over 3,000 islands -- with little land for agriculture. Therefore, the Japanese have always looked to the sea for food. Buddhism also influenced what people ate, since the eating of meat was discouraged for many centuries.Most medieval Japanese were farmers and fishermen. So rice, vegetables and seafood were the staples of the Japanese diet. Today, the Japanese consume one-sixth of the world's seafood.

Seafood is eaten in many forms both cooked and raw (as sashimi and on top of sushi). It is boiled in soups and salted and dried in the sun. Favorites include squid, octopus, shrimp, cuttlefish, eel, clams, mussels, crab, lobster, tuna, salmon, cod, sea bass, sardines, shark and even whale. As we said, vegetables were important (even seaweed). Again because of Buddhism (which taught that the taking of any life was wrong), many Japanese became vegetarians.

Another unique feature of Japanese food is the importance of its appearance. No other cuisine places such importance on the processes of preparation and presentation. This is thought to come from Zen Buddhist philosophy, which holds that even simple activities like preparing a meal can become a work of art and spiritual commitment.


The earliest hunters and gatherers wore clothing made from furs and plant fibers (such as linen or hemp). Both men and women wore simple one-piece garments with an opening for the head, seams down the sides and a belt at the waist. The rice farmers of the earlier Yayoi Period wore similar clothing. During the later Yayoi period, clothing became a little more complex. It consisted of two pieces -- a lower piece and an upper piece with tight sleeves. The art of raising silkworms had been introduced to Japan by this time, so some clothing was made of silk. Since techniques for dyeing silk had not yet been developed, silk clothing was always white.

During the Asuka Period, the kimono was introduced -- for men, women and children. Women's kimonos had obis (wide sashes) which went around the waist and were tied elaborately in the back. Everyone wore kimonos. The fabric they were made of depended on social class. Farmers, merchants and artisans wore rough kimonos made of cotton or hemp, while the ruling class wore silk.

Samurai clothing is shown in many woodblock prints -- both armor and everyday dress. Samurai clothing for daily life consisted of a hakama (almost like a skirt) and baggy pants -- sometimes with a winged vest worn over a robe. Today the hakama is worn only when performing traditional martial arts.


The first people of Japan are thought to have come both from the north and from the west (from the Korean peninsula or from the Chinese mainland during the Ice Age, when Japan was not an isolated island country). Some also came by boat from the Pacific Islands. These early people were hunters and gatherers. As they began to settle into farming life, they built homes made with wooden frames, walls of grass or bark thatch and thatch roofs.

Later, people migrated from the north through Korea or China by ship. They brought with them an agriculture based on rice farming. Their homes were made of wood planks with roofs made of thatch. The floors of some of these homes were dug into pits, so the floors were dirt. During the Kofun Period, houses remained simple. They had thatched roofs with log pole beams to hold the roofs up. Temple architecture was more complicated, except for the castles of the emperor, the Daimyo and the Shoguns -- Japanese homes remained quite simple throughout the Medieval Period.

YouTube Video Instruction
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Reading List

Turnbull, Steven :
Samurai Warriors

"Samurai" from Calliope World History Magazine for Young People,
Volume Three, No. 3, Jan./Feb., 1993.

for Students, Parents and Teachers

Now let's do Practice Exercise 5-2 (top).


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