Friday, January 04, 2008

What is a samurai?

We talk a lot about samurai at the Samurai Archives, needless to say. I think most of us take for granted what a samurai was, however. I've never been truly confident in my own off-hand definition of the term. So without further ado, what was a samurai? Whole books have been written on the nature and evolution of the samurai (see Farris and Friday, specifically), so one post will definitely not be sufficient to address this problem. These are my impressions after reading several sources (specifically Friday's Hired Swords, Farris' Heavenly Warriors, and Varley's Warriors of Japan), so specific page numbers won't be mentioned. I'm not pleased with the brainstorming laid out in this post, but it's a start towards better understanding the samurai class. If you disagree or have more to add, please discuss it in the comments section!


A samurai was just a warrior: an armored man who rode a horse, had two deadly, curved swords, battled ninja for honor, and followed Bushido.


If a samurai was just a warrior, then anyone who practiced violence and destruction for a living would be called a samurai. If so, then where is their Bushido code of ethics? First off, the Bushido code of ethics is waiting to be invented in the 17th--early 20th century. Secondly, there are historical documents that list the number of samurai in different periods of Japanese history. The numbers are very small: remember that the samurai only numbered less than 10% of the whole population of Japan. Therefore, something distinguished this small group of people known as "samurai" from other warriors. I won't delve into the following very deep, but the samurai fought with bow and arrow much longer than he did with his iconic katana, ninja was simply the term for a samurai on a secret mission (once over, he would return to his normal position of counting rice in the castle storehouse), and Bushido...well, I'm not going to even touch Bushido in this post.

The etymology of the noun "samurai" 侍 derives from the classical Japanese verb, "saburau", which means "to serve" or "to attend." By that token, the noun form means, "a servant" or "an attendant."

There were 9 court ranks in the ancient system. The 5th rank signaled entry into the aristocratic class. The samurai were typically of the 6th rank, which means that they would serve or attend (in both the bureaucratic and military sense) to those individuals who held higher court ranks (5th-1st). Therefore, the Western misconception that samurai were definitively male warriors can be dispelled. The samurai held a certain rank and ranged from assassins to wet nurses to paper-pushers.

The samurai in battle was lightly armored, rode a small horse, and shot a bow and arrow, carrying a sword at his or her side.

The samurai needed a source of income. Living in an agrarian society (where one can't eat aristocratic or military titles), their best bet was to deal directly with the land. They became "on-site landlords" (a term Dr. William Wayne Farris uses often) who 1) made sure the peasants farmed and 2) collected taxes.

If we define the samurai as simply a mounted archer, we can see their origins very early. We would also be forced to call a shipwrecked Chinese merchant who rode a rose and carried a bow a "samurai" as well. I believe we need to dig deeper.

The Kiso horse is indigenous to the Japanese archipelago. Decreasing greatly in number in the Yayoi period, horses didn't come back onto the scene until c. 450 AD when they were brought over (with equestrian gear such as horse armor, stirrups, etc...) from Korea. These Korean horses were used for riding and military purposes. The bow and arrow (even composite versions) are found in archaeological sites as early as the Jomon Period (c. 10,000-300 BC), in roughly the same form as that used by the warriors of the late Heian Period (12th century). Therefore, by viewing the samurai as mounted archers, we see a very early (after c. 450) development. This line of reasoning would suggest that (1) kofun held samurai remains; (2) samurai were involved in the excursions to the Korean Peninsula; (3) samurai were intricately involved in the Ritsuryo State and the Taiho military; and (4) simply evolved into the samurai of the medieval period.

The district magistrates, who came from locally notable families, were institutionalized into around 550 officials throughout the archipelago in the Ritsuryo State/Taiho system of the late 7th/early 8th century. These locally notable people were individuals skilled in the martial arts (the way of the bow and horse; kyuuba no michi). If ancient military aristocrats became the 8th century district magistrates, then the former horseriding warrior elite evolved into the later district magistrates and both were therefore samurai. If horseriding archers weren't samurai originally, then the district magistrates were the ones to evolve eventually into samurai .

As far as a local notable goes, there were approximately 9 district magistrates per province (66 total), yielding a national total of around 550. They were the network or apparatus through which the Chinese-style bureaucratic system controlled the peasants. It seems only natural that district magistrates, who brought together and led the local armies, for the court, could be called "samurai" in the 8th century.

The district magistrates were given large tracts of land. In light of this, the local notables were also landowners. They were landlords as well, who charged exorbitant interest to the peasants. They controlled local matters and regulated/administered the raising of horses.

Many of the poems in the Man'youshuu anthology were written by the district magistrates, which projects forward to the image of the later, learned warrior aristocrats of the Heian period.

Or were samurai none of the above, but simply military aristocrats? These military aristocrats were people like Fujiwara no Nakamaro, Fujiwara no Sumitomo, and Taira no Masakado (incidentally all rebels). These men may be termed military aristocrats or servants of the court. Perhaps the 8th century Nakamaro and Hirotsugu are too early to be called "military aristocrats" for they weren't of military families, but were nobles who revolted. Yes, they had military retinues in the capital, but they are best termed aristocratic "servants of the court." Not only are all servants of the court not of the 6th or 5th court rank, but they don't belong to military houses. This factor of lineage (also important in premodern Shinto and Buddhist transmission) is important because samurai, as a basic prerequisite, placed great value on lineage. Therefore, military aristocrats will be defined as houses given to the profession of warfare, like the Sakanoue, Outomo, and the Mononobe. However, all of these families were before the institutionalization of the warrior households (and the allowance to carry weapons and practice violence) after the rebellions of Masakado and Sumitomo in the 10th century. These houses like the Kawachi Minamoto and the Ise Taira obeyed Imperial orders making them "servants of the court." They fought as mounted archers, and they were influential on the local scene as provincial governors and district magistrates. These 10th century "tsuwamono no ie" therefore play an important part in our definition. However, even as early as the 9th century, "houses that specialized in military affairs emerged" such as the Sakanoue.

The development of the aforementioned "on-site landlords" on Shouen (estates) around 1050 and after, improved the economy after difficult times of drought, famine, and epidemics. It also brought the peasant cultivators back onto the fields. These on-site landlords were like district magistrates, in that they dealt with the lowest levels of the populace who produced the agricultural products and were also "servants of the court." However, the district magistrates' profession was not guaranteed: they did not have the surety of their position like the military lineages of the late 10th century/early 11th century. Yet, the Minamoto fell out of favor after Yoshii's late 11th century Later Three Years' War. Therefore, surety of position shouldn't be counted as a prerequisite for being a samurai.

If we call samurai an "agrarian landlord," military aristocrats in the capital wouldn't be "samurai," even though they are the head of the warrior lineage, itself. Therefore, samurai are local notables (or from once-local lineages, like the Sakanoue) who served the court and were predominantly mounted archers. This definition obviously evolved in later periods of Japanese history. Strata of the samurai *did* have very strong ties to the land through jobs such as landlords, but that definition is too specific and discriminatory towards those members at court.

As mentioned, a "mounted archer" would allow the definition to go back to the 5th century. An "agrarian landlord" would allow the definition to apply to district magistrates and their unofficial successors, the on-site landlords under the shouen system, a span from the 8th to the 11th century, and exclude those at court. The multiple factors must therefore be present.

Therefore, when did the samurai emerge? I believe they emerged in the 11th century when "on-site landlords" (Farris' term), the shouen system, the Minamoto and Taira emerged, and the court greatly depended on these principally warrior houses for protection.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Snobbery, Fear and Loathing in the Imjin War

I’ve been leading a small discussion group on the Samurai Archives Citadel forum on the topic of Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s invasions of Korea. We’ve been having a great time and learning a great deal about this conflict. We recently had a discussion about some of the books covering this topic available in English. Never a dull topic, this 1592-1598 conflict has managed to spark debate among Chinese, Korean and Japanese scholars for quite a long time. Now, it seems the scholarly sniping has reached the English speaking world as well.

In the past six years or so, it seems that Hideyoshi’s Korean wars, henceforth called the ‘Imjin War’ have caught the attention of native English-speaking scholars. First on the scene was Stephen Turnbull in 2002 with his ground breaking book, Samurai Invasion, followed by Samuel Hawley with The Imjin War. Kenneth Swope, currently an Assistant Professor of History at Ball State University, came out with some papers and articles on the conflict, most notably “Crouching Tigers, Secret Weapons: Military Technology Employed During the Sino-Japanese-Korean War, 1592–1598” published in The Journal of Military History 69 (January 2005) and then “Beyond Turtleboats: Siege Accounts from Hideyoshi’s Second Invasion of Korea, 1597-1598” published in the Sungkyun Journal of East Asian Studies Vol. 6, No. 2. 2006.

First a few words on Turnbull. Let’s face it. Dr. Turnbull has been a whipping boy in many circles for a variety of reasons ranging from recycling Papinot nearly word for word, sloppy mistakes, and then regurgitating his own works in “new” books at a pace that rivals the output of the slurpee machine at the corner Seven-Eleven. But I’m not here to bury Dr. Turnbull today in heaps of scorn, but to praise him. Faults aside, Turnbull deserves a great deal of credit for bringing the Imjin War to the forefront as his name is a big draw in the samurai history mass media market. In the West, the Imjin War is really the truly ‘forgotten’ Korean war and Turnbull has pulled this topic out of the shadows and into the light in what I feel is probably his best major work. Turnbull gives a very good, agenda-free account of the conflict that left me hungering for more.

Luckily for me, Samuel Hawley came out with the meaty The Imjin War. At over 600 pages, this book is a feast for one looking for a well-rounded narrative of the war. I was hooked as soon as I started reading about the pre-invasion diplomatic posturing and blundering. Well researched and documented, Hawley deserves a big round of applause for this work. While Turnbull is better at focusing on the purely military aspects of the Imjin War, Hawley excels at telling the “story behind the story” in an easy-to-follow format. Hawley and Turnbull’s books nicely complement each other kind of like an appetizer and a main course. But what’s for dessert?

Unfortunately it looks like “sour grapes” are on the menu. As previously mentioned, Swope has written some articles (actually more than two) on the Imjin War, and a book entitled A Dragon’s Head and a Serpent’s Tail: Ming China and the First Greater East Asian War, 1592-1598, is due to be published later this year as part of the University of Oklahoma Press’s “Campaigns & Commanders” series. But even long before the publication of his book, Swope has taken it upon himself to go on the offensive against both Turnbull and Hawley.

Here is what Swope had to say about Turnbull’s Samurai Invasion in his “Crouching Tiger” article:
“Stephen Turnbull published the first popular account, which, although it provides a solid general narrative of the war, has a number of shortcomings. First of all, Turnbull relies entirely on Japanese- and English-language secondary materials, augmented by a few translations of primary sources. He uses virtually nothing written from the Chinese perspective, not even widely available English-language reference works or monographs. He also leaves out much important Japanese scholarship, most notably the works of Kitajima Manji, who has published extensively on the subject. As a result the work is one-sided and presents a rather flawed interpretation of the war. Turnbull repeats the conventional view that Hideyoshi’s death in 1598 was the primary factor in Japan’s defeat in Korea. He also seems to adopt a pro-Japanese slant throughout, such as glossing over Japanese atrocities by blaming them on “lesser soldiers not in the first rank of samurai heroes.” Nevertheless, Turnbull does deserve credit for making a larger audience aware of this war and its historical importance...erroneously refers to the Battle of Pyŏkchegwan as the largest or most important conflict of the entire Korean campaign.”

It doesn’t seem all that professional to attack another author like this in an article such as “Crouching Tigers”. Turnbull’s book may have some flaws and is by no means perfect, but I cannot agree completely with Swope’s criticism of Turnbull. Was “Crouching Tigers” meant to be an op-ed or review of other works or a vehicle for Swope to put forth his theory that technology was the single most important variable in determining the outcome of the war?

Turnbull has trooped on with his Imjin research and has published additional titles for Osprey that touch upon the Imjin War, most notably Fighting Ships of the Far East 2 and the newly released Japanese Castles in Korea 1592-98. I think it is safe to say that Turnbull’s level of scholarship is improving, but again, his previous works have brought himself a lot of criticism in the past, some of it deserved. People may have a negative thing or two to say about Turnbull, but one thing you cannot deny is that he has been a gentleman in the face of Swope’s criticism. In the bibliographical section of Japanese Castles in Korea, Turnbull praises Swope as being a ‘particularly fine contributor’ to the study of the Imjin War and singles out “Crouching Tigers” as one of these outstanding articles. I thought this was classy, especially after what Swope wrote about Turnbull’s book in that article.

In the case of Hawley’s book, Swope goes to work on him in perhaps one of the most public of places in the world-- In a scathing swipe at Hawley in a review on the book’s website, Swope writes:

“While this book has the trappings of an academic monograph, it is in fact little more than a basic narrative cobbled together from translated sources. The author provides little real analysis and has only a limited grasp of the actual historical source base, instead working through the translations of others. The result is a well-intentioned, but ultimately unsatisfying work full of both minor and major mistakes of fact and interpretation. It is perhaps slightly better than what might be available in English (in one volume) at this point, but those seeking a serious and nuanced understanding of this conflict, should best look elsewhere.”

Oh, the snobbery drips from Swope’s review like snot from a bratty kid’s runny nose! Hawley’s book was a six-year labor of love in the making, and the painstaking research he did to weave this book into a coherent and excellent overview of the Imjin War deserves to be commended. For an academic aspiring for Imjin ‘greatness’, a blatant attack of this nature is despicable.

What is Swope looking for? Absolute perfection? In a topic such as the Imjin War where the truth lies somewhere between what is written in the contemporary primary sources of the Japanese, Koreans and Chinese, it is going to be hard to find perfection—let alone write a book that satisfies people who have ulterior agendas aimed at defending or glorifying the actions of any one of the combatants in this multinational conflict.

I don’t know what Turnbull and Hawley have done to deserve such public attacks by Swope. Perhaps they didn’t heap enough praise on the Ming nor pay the proper level of respect to the Middle Kingdom’s role in pushing the Japanese ‘robber dwarfs’ off the continent. Whatever the case, I certainly hope that this isn’t Swope’s way of doing pre-publication self-promotion. Swope’s swipes at both Turnbull and Hawley sorely detract from the merit of his own research and writing—and that is too bad, because I think Swope has a lot of interesting things to say, whether one agrees with everything he writes or not. Instead, Swope has taken us on a snobbish detour into his personal fear and loathing of his peers. Perhaps it is just a case of Imjin envy?

In any event, Swope’s criticisms, like an old fashioned Chinese fo-lang-chi firearm, lack any decisive battlefield punch and could make him look like a true paper tiger. Swope himself will have to run the gauntlet of peer reviews when his new book, A Dragon’s Head and a Serpent’s Tail is published. Swope’s attacks on Turnbull and Hawley could actually blow up in his face like a poorly made Ming copy of a Portuguese arquebus if his book misses the mark. All we can do is wait and see.