The samurai! As one of the most legendary warrior classes
in history, samurai are a staple of pop culture and high culture alike. Because of their popularity, we know a lot
about the samurai, but some of the more obscure things are pretty dark. Here are messed up facts about the samurai. History explains that seppuku is a ritualistic
suicide method where a samurai slices his stomach open with a small sword. Ever since it emerged in the 12th century
as an honorable method for losing samurai to die on the battlefield, Japan has wrought
all sorts of abdominal-slicing doom upon its elite warrior class. According to ThoughtCo, there were two basic
ways of doing the deed. The more awful variation had the performer
cut his abdomen open with a vertical and a horizontal cut, then wait for death in excruciating
pain. However, most opted for the softer variant,
where a helper decapitated them immediately after the first cut. Outside the battlefield, seppuku was an elaborate
process, where the participants made a day out of it with rituals such as the writing
of a “death poem” and having a good drink of sake before grabbing the blade. Usually, there were even spectators present. Samurai warriors could perform seppuku as
a political protest, or to show their overwhelming grief over the death of a beloved leader. It was also a form of death sentence: Shoguns
and daimyos could command their underlings to perform seppuku for “real or perceived”
slights, at which point the person had to follow through, or else he’d bring shame to
himself and his entire family. Bushido code is one of the first things many
people associate with the noble samurai, but is it really what we think it is? Not quite, according to Dr. Henry Smith of
Columbia University. The original bushido was just one of the assorted
warrior guidelines in Japan’s history. Their values often included things like fighting
spirit, skill, duty, honor, loyalty, and self-sacrifice, but focused on different things and were still
pretty martial. Since bushido is the one we know today, surely
it was just the code that won some sort of samurai ethics tournament to become the one
everyone started to follow? According to Dr. Smith, again, nope. When the Meiji Restoration of 1868 ended the
Edo period and essentially abolished the samurai class, samurai warrior values steered the
loyalty aspect from the samurai’s immediate master to a more generalized appreciation
of the emperor and nation. The 1899 book Bushido: The Soul of Japan is
arguably the most influential description of this reimagined bushido in modern Japan,
which is ironic because the book was aimed at Western readers and retooled bushido as
a largely non-militaristic take on Western chivalry. Instead of samurai, this new bushido is for
everyone in the Japanese society and focuses on the positive aspects of a loyal, humble,
brave, and hard-working citizen. As Japan Guide notes, the samurai really started
flourishing during the Edo Period, between 1603 and 1867, when they rose to the upper
echelons of Japan’s society and became the highest caste. However, their higher-than-ever social status
didn’t mean they were free to do whatever they felt like, at least when it came to marriage. According to Hisako Hata, curator of the Edo-Tokyo
museum, marriages of the Edo era were generally prearranged, and young members of the samurai
class had it particularly bad: Apart from having their parents essentially choose them
a spouse from whatever family was deemed socially appropriate, they also needed the local authorities
to consent before they could marry that virtual stranger in the first place. This system made love marriages extremely
rare, but that didn’t mean people didn’t still fall in love. As a result, some young, desperate lovers
would commit suicide together when it became evident that their parents had other plans
for their marital future. Katana swords are at least as cool and legendary
as their historical samurai wielders, and they’ve held a lot of ceremonial sway over
the years. However, a katana is still a sword, which
means it had to be tested before the swordsmith presented it to its samurai owner. According to Vintage News, the testing was
an elaborate process called tameshigiri, or “test cut.” This put both the sword and its user’s skill
to the test by cutting into materials such as bamboo, wood, or armor, and if either the
katana or the man swinging it weren’t up to the task, the sword could quite easily be
ruined. Tameshigiri is still practiced today, but
one dark subsection of the practice has hopefully gone the way of the dodo: testing swords on
actual human bodies. The bodies were usually those of dead criminals,
but using corpses didn’t make the process any less gruesome, especially as the mutilation
count was sometimes inscribed on the sword as a creepy seal of quality. Apart from the masterless ronin drifters,
the samurai class isn’t usually associated with poverty. However, the fact that they were at the top
of feudal Japan’s food pyramid didn’t necessarily mean they controlled vast amounts of wealth. According to Japan Times, the Tokugawa shoguns
of the Edo Period felt that having lots of food and warm clothes would be detrimental
to the society, and started pushing toward stoic attitudes in all Japanese classes. This push was so effective that many Japanese
either couldn’t understand or tried to avoid money, and the samurai in particular took
Tokugawa tenets to heart, to the point that they started seeing money as too “tainted”
to mess with. Historian Kozo Yamamura writes that most scholars
agree on the increasing poverty among the samurai during this era, but the actual extent
of their supposed squalor is largely unclear and may have been influenced by the modern
image of the humble, noble samurai. Yamamura doesn’t outright debunk the concept
of the impoverished Edo samurai but he does suggest that the, quote, “increasing poverty”
could have been due to any number of economic reasons. It could even have been a form of “psychological
poverty,” where the samurai grew so accustomed to their power and wealth that their expectations
for income rose higher than their actual income. One of the most terrifying traditions associated
with the samurai was tsujigiri. The term means “roadside killing,” and though
the practice had its roots in honorable dueling, it eventually twisted into a popular practice
where members of the samurai class sneaked around to unexpectedly slash at passing merchants
and peasants. Sometimes, there were vague excuses for these
gruesome slayings, such as testing out a new weapon or practicing a strike. Other times, it was done simply because the
samurai just happened to feel like it. There was even a legend floating around that
performing 1,000 tsujigiri killings could cure illness. All in all, it was not a great time to walk
out at night if you were a merchant or peasant. Encyclopedia of Japanese Swords says that
tsujigiri ultimately became such a massive problem that the newly empowered Tokugawa
officials prohibited it in 1602. Even then, the custom didn’t exactly go away
overnight. Regular instances of tsujigiri were reported
well into the Edo period, to the point that even the third Tokugawa shogun was rumored
to often sneak out of the Edo castle to chop up passersby on the dark streets of his city. All things must come to an end, and HistoryNet
says Japan’s feudal system sang its swan song on a battlefield near Kagoshima on September
25, 1877. The country had been moving toward modern
times, aided in no small part by none-too-subtle hints from the superior military might of
the U.S. Traditional samurai had resisted change because it stripped them of their previous
power, and there had been several unsuccessful revolts. Now only the Satsuma clan samurai and their
leader Takamori Saigo remained, and Saigo’s initial attempts at peaceful negotiations
with the government had descended into violence. This was a problem because the government
had sent 30,000 soldiers to face him. Saigo had 500 men who were so short on supplies
that they had to melt trinkets into bullets, and their only medical supplies were a carpenter’s
saw and some rags. As the imperial army was hammering his positions
with lethal artillery fire, Saigo resigned himself to his fate and had a final sake party
with his closest friends. Early in the morning of September 25, the
imperials stormed the samurai positions. Three hours later, only 40 of Saigo’s men
were alive and the samurai leader himself was mortally wounded. Saigo had his follower Shinsuke Beppu take
him to an appropriately nice hilltop spot and behead him. After this, Beppu and the remaining samurai
drew their swords and charged the enemy gunfire. None survived. Nowadays we talk about adding insult to injury,
but the samurai liked to approach this concept the other way around. As the Encyclopedia of Japanese Swords tells
us, a practice known as kirisute-gomen allowed them to legally kill people who they felt
were disrespecting them, as long as they did it immediately after the supposed insult happened
and the victim was of a lower social class. The insult and retaliation needed to be seen
by a witness who could recount the events in front of a court, though the samurai were
allowed to use their own servants and friends as witnesses. So did every samurai have a blank check to
kill almost any merchant or peasant who looked at them in a funny way, or made fun of their
socks-and-sandals combo? “Such a mild insult!” Well, not exactly. There were actually serious repercussions
for anyone caught abusing this system. A samurai who was found to misuse his kirisute-gomen
privileges was given a “severe” punishment, which could be a shameful death by beheading,
and his house being abolished so his sons couldn’t inherit his title and position. Ouch. What does a warrior do during a period of
peace? Well, if he’s a samurai, he might start wearing
outlandish clothing, get a rebel haircut, and join a themed street gang to terrorize
common folks and clash with other gangs. You know, like in the movie Warriors. “Warriors, come out to playay.” According to Law and Order in the Age of the
Samurai, the lack of respect and also the lack of wars to fight drove some bored and
unemployed Edo-period samurai out on the streets, where they joined with other highborn kids
to form gangs such as the kabukimono and the kyokaku. Kabukimono were a flamboyant group that eschewed
traditional samurai behavior in favor of strange clothes, deliberately debauched behavior,
and strange slang. Their behavior was that of a stereotypical
1980s movie gang, in that they roamed the streets harassing townspeople, wreaking havoc,
and brawling with other gangs. Kyokaku, or “street knights,” were one of
those other gangs and the natural enemy of the kabukimono. They were vigilantes who were comprised of
samurai and lower-class townspeople alike, and were nominally protecting the people. The kyokaku carried extra-long swords, shaved
their traditional sideburns all the way up to the temple, and marked their allegiance
with expensive fabrics worn draped over the shoulder or as neckerchiefs. Cool and mysterious as their vigilante antics
might have seemed, kyokaku were basically just another group of street thugs, and the
violent clashes between them, kabukimono, and other factions provided the Edo period
with a hefty helping of bloody gang violence. Everything must end eventually, and as Japan
Times attests, the samurai faced the music during a period known as Meiji restoration. When the last Tokugawa shogun died in 1853
with no follower in sight, Japan plunged into a long period of turmoil that destroyed the
shogunate and gave rise to Emperor Meiji, who took the throne in 1868. Meiji’s government started steering the country
toward modern times by opening up to industrialization and Western influences … and stripping away
the samurais’ powers. The Meiji restoration left an estimated two-thirds
of the samurai class without a job. The remaining samurai were somewhat more fortunate,
as they were hired in new bureaucratic positions and found a new purpose as facilitators of
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