The Real Samurai:
The Myth of the Sword
By James L. Secor, Ph.D.
Now that we know the preferred weapon of the samurai was the bow and arrow, the question of the myth of the sword needs to be broached. There are basically two reasons. The first is that the old Japan that we know of in the West is the Tokugawa jidai, 1603-1856. This is in great part due to the wealth of historical documents and other writings from this time. Those interested in the times before the 17th century, for the most part, scholars. This is a pity because the literature from those preceding 1000 years is of rather high quality.
The second reason the sword came into prominence, for it was there all along, was as a status symbol. Once Tokugawa had established himself as the new government, there really was no more war. There was only one attempt at insurrection early on that was most decisively put down. So, there was no need of warriors any more. But samurai, being the highest in the hierarchy--samurai, peasant-farmer, artisan and merchant--had to have their existence rationalized.
It was important to keep the four echelons of society separate and distinct. The most obvious was in dress. The carrying of two swords, one short, one long, became the status marker of the samurai. Non-samurai allowed to wear swords could only wear one. This is easily seen in the many woodblock prints of Yoshiwara.
But before the sword became romanticized, a special class of samurai had to make themselves known. These were the ronin, "wave men," masterless samurai who were, for the most part, the bane of the Tokugawa government. They were roust-abouts for the most part. They were strutting, arrogant men itching for a fight and taking the slightest slight as an opportunity to show their mettle. They were highwaymen.
True, some of them became teachers and established terakoya, village schools. This was one way the Confucian "samurai" ethic was perpetrated throughout society. A few even stooped to making umbrellas. Some turned to art and literature. By and large, though, most ronin were troublemakers and it is thanks to them that the "way of the sword" found its way into the later cultural romanticism.
In truth, there weren't many of these romantic heroes of inordinate skill roaming around saving damsels in distress and put-upon farmers and merchants and uncovering insidious plots by evil, greedy daimyo, lords (literally "great name"). That there were a few who ran amok is attested to by the immensely popular kabuki play, Dance of Death at Ise.
Its claim to fame was its excessive violence, a trait of kabuki in the late 18th century. The most popular scene in the play, and the one most often produced any more, is when the lead, Mitsui, flailing away with his sword, bursts into the tea house in a fit of jealous passion and slices up his lover and a slew of other people, spattering blood and bodies everywhere.
Furtherance of the myth of the sword is perhaps found in ritual suicide (seppuku) supposedly an expression of one's sincerity. That it happened on the battlefield just before final defeat, the samurai warrior going out in ablaze of glory, dying for his principles rather than submitting to defeat and compromise, cannot be overlooked. Examples of this sort of behavior flood the historical war romances.
But the single most influential man in making the legend of the sword was Miyamoto Musashi, author of The Book of Five Rings (so named because of the organization of te text into five sections or rings). Although there is some influence from the work of Sun Tzu, it is a text by a man on his way to winning and being a formidable hero.
In actual fact, Musashi was apparently not a nice guy at all. His skill, great is it may have been (we only have his word for it), is tempered by his style of fighting. His tactical knowledge is worthy of any fighting man but his method was simple: anything is acceptable as long as you win. This includes throwing sand in your opponent's eyes. Cutting down a blind adversary is not very difficult. Musashi was, in reality, a street fighter.
The popularity of the myth of the samurai in Japan tops anything we in America have accomplished with the Old West. Two or three of the longest running TV shows are samurai dramas. They are awfully exciting and full of fancy, obviously impossible feats of swordsmanship and heroism.
Thus the legend of the importance of the sword for samurai was created. It was the weapon of choice for close, hand-to-hand combat but by the time of the Tokugawa hegemony it was no more than a status symbol, no matter how well-made. Very few samurai truly struck down, at will, those who were deemed disrespectful, as mandated by law. The few times a samurai/daimyo took advantage of this privilege have received more play than they were worth--minus one incident. These few instances added gleam and glitter to the myth, though.
Although many of these swords are of superior craftsmanship and well worth the effort and expense to acquire, what we are really collecting is a romantic myth.
As is the Japanese wont, what they did with the sword is turn the practice, the gaining of skill, into not only an art form - but a mental discipline. Studying sword technique has also become a physical regiment, building strength, stamina and sensitivity. As with target shooting in the West, swordsmanship is a competitive sport. It cannot be denied that even here part of the allure is generated from myth and legend.
Jim Secor is a freelance writer who has traveled extensively overseas, especially Japan and China. Jim received a Master's from Johns Hopkins and a Ph.D. from the University of Kansas before studying at the National Puppet Theatre of Japan (Bunraku), the first foreigner ever to do so. He has published in all genres and produced several plays over the years and has taught theatre, writing and literature in three countries. Jim is now teaching at Sun Yat-sen (Zhongshan) University in China. He is a columnist for MWC News.