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The Way of the Samurai sounds like what your nerdy friend pretended to be back in high school. Well, that guy was onto something that has spanned close to a millennium and remains a way of life in Japan. Awesome armour, unwavering discipline, and the best swords in the world; this is Samurai. It’s a lot more complicated than that but I just like finishing sentences with – this is Samurai.
The Samurai arose around ~1000 AD and were originally thugs. Masterful swordsman who would represent clans and impose their will on others. Eventually the unification of Japan took place and a feudal system was put in order. The Samurai were in the ruling class just below the Emperor. Skilled workers (engineers, etc.) were second on the pyramid and the peasants held the lowest of the social order. This system lasted for around 700 years and forever infused the Way of the Samurai into Japan. Bushido is the code that governed the Samurai; it has 8 core values: Rectitude, Courage, Benevolence, Politeness, Sincerity, Honor, Loyalty, and Self-control. A Samurai would commit his life to pursuing and harnessing these principles. It can’t be overstated how serious this was to a Samurai. Bringing dishonour on himself could only be cleansed by Seppuku, suicide by disembowelment.
During Japan’s modernization, the Samurai lost their political power and status. There were bloody revolts (this is a theme through Japanese history) but ultimately technological advancement triumphed and the Samurai as a class, were no more. Japan entered into a hyper-advancement era that continued into a ultra militaristic period. The intensity of the Samurai never disappeared; it lay beneath the surface and was stoked during WWII. The Japanese forces were some of the most ferocious enemies one could encounter. If military success is contingent upon discipline and obedience then the Japanese were ripe for a monumental military.
The vestiges of Samurai can still be clearly seen in Japan. Though Japan is not allowed to have a fully sized military, the average citizen displays an adherence to Bushido that would spin a Westerner’s head. There have been times when I’ve thought to myself “Stop bowing to me already, you’re making me uncomfortable. I can’t take all this respect! I need someone to yell at me.”
Enter Kendo – a sword fighting sport that teaches the core values of Bushido. It is a commonly practiced sport among Japanese and is taught at an early age. It is extremely methodical and disciplined. You’re taught to battle with your opponent but to always give respect. In the early days of Kendo, certain matches would be held with no armour and real swords (and you thought hockey was hardcore). The same gravity is displayed when you enter into a match in today’s age even though you’re wearing body armour and using a bamboo stick (I pictured it as real).
Now that I have sufficiently prefaced Kendo, I can brag about the incredible opportunity I had. I trained with Tomoyoshi Yamanaka. He is a 4th generation descendant of a Samurai who guarded one of Kyoto’s castles. I was fortunate enough to spar with him ( I think I put up a good fight but Alayna begs to differ) and receive a lecture on his life and what it means to be samurai. The dojo I trained in was particularly beautiful because it was designed for the emperor to watch matches.
I’ve donned the armour. I’ve swung the sword. I am Samurai.