Many people often see little similarity between the country of Japan and Europe. However, there are actually several similarities between these two countries. In fact, Reischauer and Jansen note that Feudal Japan had departed so far from East Asian norms that it was more similar to medieval Europe than it was to China. Thus, the knight of Europe and the samurai of Japan despite a lack of contact with one another shared several common elements. This was a result of many similarities social and cultural influences experienced by the two distant countries. Japan has a history that dates back thousands of years. Researchers believe the Japanese people descended from many groups that migrated to the islands from other parts of Asia, including China and Korea.
As early as 4500 B.C., the Japanese islands were inhabited by fishermen, hunters and farmers. The early culture was known as “Jomon,” named after the “cord pattern” pottery crafted by the people at the time. Major Japanese cultural changes occurred about 200 B.C. The people were known as “Yayoi.” The Yayoi were mostly farmers. It is believed that the present-day Japanese closely resemble the Yayoi in appearance and language. Ancient Yayoi warriors developed weapons, armour and a code during the ensuing centuries that became the centrepiece for the Japanese samurai. War played a central part in the history of Japan. Warring clans controlled much of the country. A chief headed each clan; made up of related families.
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The chiefs were the ancestors of Japan’s imperial family. The wars were usually about land useful for the production of rice. In fact, only 20% of the land was fit for farming. The struggle for control of that land eventually gave rise to the Samurai. One of the important dates in the history of the Japanese warring class is 660 B.C. That’s when, according to legend, Emperor Jimmu became head of a confederation of warlike clans. Emperor Jimmu was known as “The Divine Warrior.” He led his people from Kyushu to the Kinki region and conquered the people there. Eventually, Emperor Jimmu settled in the area of Yamato. This eventually gave rise to the Yamato dynasty and state. The leaders of Yamato believed themselves to be of divine origin.
Later, the Yamato clans conducted many military campaigns on the Asian mainland. The targets included Korea and China and these campaigns led to the importation of Korean and Chinese culture, technology and military arts. A comparison between the knight of Europe and the samurai of Japan may demonstrate how these two countries had more in common than one might originally suppose. The samurai and the knight had their origins in military and economic need. His role was as a warrior, and as the samurai, in some cases, he was little more than a thug rewarded for his viciousness. But if a knight was to succeed, he had to take his role in the military seriously. Furthermore, like the samurai of Japan as time went on, success required more than brawn: it required loyalty to his liege-lord in society as well as strategy and ingenuity on the battlefield.
Born of Noble blood and birth in the time of Charlemagne, in the 9th and 10th Centuries of France, and his successors. The knight emerged from the cavalry of Carolinian times a free man owing military services. Similar to the Samurai the knight was given land by provincial landowners and swore allegiance to a lord in return for military and sometimes other services, all of which was to protect the interests of their lords. With little to no Central government sanctioned army Kingdoms struggled to survive, constantly faced the threat of invasion by nomadic tribes and aggressive neighbours, including Magyars and Vikings. Thus, the knight came from little more than mediocre status raised above the peasant by his expensive horse, armour, and violent manner. His violence was illustrated when Georges Duby wrote, “moral obligations and the persuasion their peers were all that could impose a limit to the [Knights] violence and greed.”
However, when the Church attempted to harness the knight and his military prowess in the 11th to 13th centuries the knight was raised to a very high level of Nobility (Gies, 45). Similarly, by the twelfth century, the power of Japan’s Central government declined and provinces banned together for protection. Many of these groups came to be led by branch members of the Imperial family because of the prestige of imperial descent. These Imperial family members had moved to provinces away from Kyoto to make their own fortunes. Similar to the early knights these provincial clans often resembled little more than vigilante bands protecting their own interests. Thus, The samurai rose out of the continuing battles for land among three main clans: the Minamoto, Taira, and the Fujiwara family. The Samurai eventually became a class unto themselves between the 9th and 12th centuries A.D. They were called by two names: Samurai (servitors) and Bushi (warriors).
Some of them were related to the ruling class. Others were hired, men. They gave complete loyalty to their Daimyo (feudal landowners) and received land and position in return. Each Daimyo used his samurai to protect his land and to expand his power and rights to more land. By providing complete loyalty to their Daimyo (feudal landowners) they received land and position in return. This loyalty often included seppuku, honourable suicide. Training of samurai often began at a very early age as Musashi Miyamoto, Japan’s most famous Samurai, wrote in 1605 AD. “From youth, my heart has been inclined toward the Way of strategy. My first duel was when I was thirteen, I struck down a strategist of the Shinto school, one Arima Kihei. When I was sixteen I struck down an able strategist Tadashima Akiyama. When I was twenty-one I went up to the capital and met all manner of strategists, never once failing to win in many contests” (Shambala Inc.).
In fact, it is believed that Musashi Miyamoto had won more than 60 swordfights by the age of 30. In addition, the samurai practised armed and unarmed combat. The early Samurai emphasized fighting with the bow and arrow. They used swords for close-in fighting and beheading their enemies. Battles with the Mongols in the late 13th century led to a change in the Samurai’s fighting style. They began to use their sword more and also made more use of spears and naginata. Although these warriors were mounted they differed markedly in appearance from the knight. The knight’s used garb consisted of the following: An Iron helmet, chain mail body armour, a long shield of wood and leather that hung from his neck and was gripped by the left hand. In addition, he would carry his heavy Broadsword that may be as long as 6 feet on his right waist and on the left he may choose to carry a small axe (Gies, 11).
The Japanese warrior on the other hand wore much lighter armour made out of thin metal strips or porcelain bound together with brightly coloured thongs. In contrast to the heavy broadsword carried by knights, the samurai wore two swords (daisho). One was long; the other short. The long sword (daito – katana) was more than 24 inches. The short sword (shoto – wakizashi) was between 12 and 24 inches. The samurai often gave names to their swords and believed it was the “soul” of their warriors. The oldest swords were straight and had their early design in Korea and China. The samurai’s desire for tougher, sharper swords for battle gave rise to the curved blade we still have today. The sword had its beginning as iron combined with carbon. The swordsmith used fire, water, anvil and a hammer to shape the world’s best swords (Suino, 45).
Another important distinction between the knight and the samurai was in their expectancies of the opposite sex. The samurai code of chivalry simply put demanded little more than complete loyalty to a lord and did not expect any less of women. Reischauer writes, “the Japanese warriors expected their women to as tough as they were and to accept self-destruction out of loyalty to lord and family. In fact, there are several accounts of women playing vital roles in military actions, especially in the tasks dealing with espionage. A further distinction between the Knight and Samurai is the area of fine arts. The western warrior often showed contempt for pursuing poetry, art, and the like. However, the warrior of Japan prided himself on poetry and calligraphy. The European feudal system, like that of Japan, depended on bonds of personal loyalty. However, in Europe, the relationship between lord and vassal was a legal contract. In Japan, the relationship was one of master and subordinate. This was due to the belief that the ruler had superior wisdom and morality.
Thus, in Japan, the lord – vassal relationship was one of complete subordination and absolute loyalty on the part of the vassal. In Europe, the title of Knight was earned through an apprenticeship most often based on kinship. In Japanese society family lineage also played a great role in the destiny of title and property. However, unlike the European, the Japanese avoided the problem of having a number of heirs to divide the property among by using a unique adoption system. In Japan, a father would choose one of his sons to leave all of his inheritance. Furthermore, if the man had no son he may give his property to an in-law or non-relative. After further examination, it is evident that although Europe and Japan are separated by great distance and had no contact with one another for a great many years they still managed to share several elements. This is demonstrated by their most esteemed warriors the samurai of Japan and the knight of Europe.
- Edwin O. Reisher, Marius Jansen. The Japanese Today.
- Conrad Schirokauer, A Brief History of Japanese Civilization
- R. Tsunoda, Sources of Japanese Tradition (vol 1)
- Paul Varley, Japanese Culture
- Duby, Georges. The chivalrous society. Berkeley Press, 1977
- Gies, Francis. Knights in History. Harper and Row, New York. 1987
- Cook, Harry. Samurai: The Story of a Warrior Tradition. Sterling Publishing, 1985.
- Darrell, Craig. Iai: The Art of Drawing the Swor. Charles Tuttle Co., 1989
- Draeger, Donn. The Martial Arts and Ways of Japan. Weatherhill Inc., 1990
- Miyamoto, Musashi. The Book of Five Rings. Shambhala Inc.
- Shimabukuro, Masayuki. Flashing Stee. Frog Publishing Ltd. 1994
- Suino, Nicklaus. The Art of Japanese Swordsmanship. Weatherhill Inc. 1998
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