text and photo by Grigoris A. Miliaresis
I’m certain that if the samurai came from another country, their fame wouldn’t have been one tenth of what it is; Caesar’s Romans, Alexander’s Greeks, Saladin’s Saracens, Genghis Chan and Tamerlane’s Mongols and Shaka’s Zulu were at least as valiant and even more so, they had to test their mettle against more and more varied enemies but the samurai managed to earn for themselves one of the most prominent spots in the history of armies and battlefields. Brave –almost indifferent in the face of death- with a strict ethical code, disciplined way beyond any human boundary and armed with the katana swords-artworks, they were able to break the chains of history books and identify with the concept of the “noble warrior”, an ideal that has been the basis for hundreds ofromantic works of art, already from the time they emerged as a separate class in Japan, in the age of the Genpei War between the Taira and Minamoto clans (1180-1185).
The operative word in the above is “romantic”: there’s little history to support the fact that the Japanese warriors of the feudal era were any bit different from their non-Japanese peers; what is even more ironic is that even the word “samurai” itself comes from the Edo period, when the wars had ceased and yesterday’s warriors exchanged their armors for silk kimono, were transformed into government employees and the swords, which were never a primary battlefield weapon anyway, were converted to symbols of their authority. The illustrious “Bushido code” was for the most part a later fantasy, their “loyalty to the death” changed directions and objects even on the battlefield and the infamous seppuku/hara-kiri was not the “ultimate act of dignity” but usually a means of execution with the professional headsman standing above the suicide to relieve him of his death throes.
But very few know all these and among those who know, even less are interested. Like Achilles, Siegfried, Beowulf, or Arthur and Lancelot, the samurai are a myth and as such they are not bound to any rule of reality; of course, like all good myths, they retain some link with history so no one can really think of them as entirely imaginary. And the Japanese still depict them accordingly like all peoples do with their mythical heroes: majestic like Date Masamune in the castle of Sendai or in action like Kusonoki Msashige in the Imperial Palace garden in Tokyo or Minamoto no Yoshitsune in Shimonoseki, they symbolize as all myths do, everything the people who bore them would like to believe for themselves. And although this is not a small thing, I still believe that reality, the reality that includes their faults and their weaknesses is far more attractive.
Grigoris A. Miliaresis is a journalist and translator. He has worked for many newspapers, magazines and publishing houses and specializes in the Internet, the martial arts and Japan where he has been living for the last few years. For more information about his work and his writing, visit http://about.me/GrigorisMiliaresis and http://www.japanarekore.gr/