Inventing the Samurai

The creation of samurai identity involved all classes of Japanese society, but the warriors were as much objects of mockery as reverence.

A Japanese painting on silk in a traditional style of a Samurai warrior riding a horse
A Japanese painting on silk in a traditional style of a Samurai warrior riding a horse. Credit: The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images

In 1800, a new book published in Kyoto claimed to impart the secrets of swordsmanship [kenjutsu] to its readers. Its author, using the pseudonym Sen’en, explained his reason for writing The Secret Transmission of Solo-Training in Swordsmanship: ‘I have written this book for those who are busy working and do not have time to practice, for those who live out in the sticks and can’t find a teacher or don’t have any friends, and for those who are motivated to learn, but because they are poor, cannot afford to study under a teacher’. He advocated enlisting the help of one’s siblings or neighbourhood children – simply give them some basic equipment and use them as dummies for attack and defence. This hardly seems like the popular depiction of swordsmanship and samurai, indeed, Sen’en’s book was not intended for a samurai readership. He wrote for the growing number of non-samurai participating in swordsmanship since the mid-18th century, and his book is but one example of how commoners participated in the invention of the samurai.

I claim, perhaps controversially, that the samurai, or at the very least samurai culture, were invented during the Tokugawa period (1603–1868). This preceded the modern invention of the samurai image, especially the infamous bushido code that began in the late 19th century as the Japanese increasingly interacted with Westerners, and contained earlier forms of warrior culture. It was only in the Tokugawa period that samurai became ‘objects’ for consumption by all status groups. In earlier times, nobles and clergy wrote about warriors, and commoners might have been familiar with war tales retold orally, but in the Tokugawa period commoners too began to produce knowledge about samurai, reading and publishing in increasing numbers. Military books were used as primers for elite commoner children and, like samurai, tales of historical warriors served as models for leadership and ethics among educated village elites. Warrior symbols, values, history, martial culture, and even sexual practice, were imitated, celebrated, parodied, and criticised in a variety of genres including literature, theatre, art, and physical culture. Thus, rather than see the relationship between samurai and those of other social status in terms of difference – for example, the legal distinctions between samurai and non-samurai, or the markers of status like the wearing of two swords that distinguished warriors from commoners – we should consider similarities: moments of convergence rather than divergence. Warriors and non-warriors shared a fascination with an idealised set of warrior histories, practices, and values: ideals unattainable by actual samurai.

The centre of warrior authority, the Tokugawa shogunate, was located in Edo (now Tokyo). What started as a small fishing village quickly became one of the early modern world’s largest urban centres as over 260 warlords [daimyo] were required to maintain walled compounds in the city. Daimyo travelled back and forth every other year from their home domains scattered across Japan, bringing with them hundreds to thousands of warrior retainers and servants. Daimyo wives and heirs lived permanently in Edo, virtual hostages, acting as a check against any warlord who might consider rebelling against the Tokugawa shogun who controlled the regime.

Commoners lived on the outside of the warrior residential area at the centre of the city, serving the ever-increasing population. This number of warriors from diverse geographical and cultural backgrounds had never lived in such proximity before, except in Kyoto during the 15th and 16th centuries, although to a much lesser degree. The warlord Hideyoshi Toyotomi was the first conqueror who tried to separate warriors and commoners into distinct status groups, but his reign did not last long enough to see this become a well-established nationwide policy, and the process of differentiating the two continued well into the 17th century. Only after the establishment of Edo was there a need to differentiate people based on occupation and obligations to warrior regime. The emergence of this status system helped foster a shared samurai identity.

The earliest example of ‘creating’ the samurai arose from solving a practical problem: how to keep track of all the samurai in Edo. The best-selling books in early modern Japan were rosters known as ‘warrior mirrors’ [bukan]. They listed the names, addresses, family members, clan crests and lineages, and job positions of every daimyo and samurai working in any significant position within the Tokugawa shogunate. Bukan were sold in unabridged and pocket-sized editions, and could be updated at bookstores several times throughout the year as warrior positions changed. Commoners, not samurai, produced, distributed, and bought these books, primarily for practical reasons. For example, a merchant would have to know where to deliver goods or identify samurai who came into a shop. Merchants also read military etiquette manuals to better interact with samurai customers, for example, to learn how to examine a sword properly. While the shogunate distributed shorter memos that provided only basic lists of warrior bureaucrats, commoner-produced bukan contained information not required for commercial use. Bukan often listed the types of gifts given to, and received from, the shogun, distances from daimyo compounds to the shogun’s castle, and other minor details not directly applicable to simple trade relations.

Each detail in the bukan reflected what warriors themselves gradually believed to be important to their identity as a social group. As warfare subsided and Japan entered several centuries of peace, samurai commentators had to define what it meant to be a warrior in times of peace. Even the most mundane aspects of warrior life had changed. For example, the production of arms and armour declined after the last major battle during the Tokugawa period, the Shimabara Rebellion (1637–38). More bureaucrats than fighters, samurai looked back to pre-Tokugawa warriors for models of action and behaviour. Even lower-ranking warriors began to create and publish family lineages, a practice that only influential warrior families would have engaged in before the Tokugawa period. And publishing the exchange of gifts among warriors indicated shifts in prestige among daimyo families. In fact, teaching warrior families how to create and preserve their identity became a source of employment for some wandering samurai who were left without a warlord after the end of the Warring States period. Many were hired as samurai tutors and could help a family plan and participate in warrior ceremonies that increasingly became part of warrior social life, especially in Edo. Others published military histories or military science books, such as the famous 17th- century text Military Mirror of Kai [koyo gunkan] whose author, Obata Kagenori, became a sought-after teacher of military science.

The leading researcher of bukan, Fujizane Kumiko has argued that they also functioned as a source of entertainment in the same way as baseball rosters, for example, do today: possessing and updating them was fun.

On the one hand, bukan are an example of how warrior authority was constructed through commoner recognition of the samurai role in Tokugawa Japan. In buying these bukan, commoners acknowledged the samurai as a social group in which even seemingly minor details were important. As the philosopher Slavoj Zizek put it, ‘a King is King because his subjects loyally think and act as if he is King’. On the other hand, however, danger to that authority could originate from how commoners appropriated warrior values for unintended purposes.

Kabuki theatre is probably the most well-known performance art that originated in the early modern period. Its importance extended beyond theatre, influencing woodblock art, fashion, poetry, and popular literature. Although kabuki is typically associated with urban commoner culture, often featuring a dandy fighting for his love, recent research has pointed to its solidly warrior origins.

During the 17th-century, when kabuki originated, most plays were held in warlords’ residences; public theatre was not yet in vogue. Given the largely warrior audience, playwrights drew upon warrior history and values. While pre-Tokugawa performances centred on the heroic actions of nobles, 17th-century kabuki celebrated warrior achievements. After kabuki moved to publicly assessable licensed districts, plays retained the warrior notions of loyalty, self-sacrifice, and martial machismo even when they featured commoner protagonists.

The most frequently performed kabuki play was called The Treasury of Loyal Retainers, also known as the Ako incident or the story of the forty-seven ronin (recently fictionalised in the 2013 Keanu Reeves film 47 Ronin). It first appeared as a puppet play [joruri] based on a historical event in the early 18th century, when a daimyo named Asano attacked a senior daimyo named Kira during a ceremony within the shogun’s castle. The cause of the attack may never be known but it is thought to have arisen from some insult by Kira against Asano. Since drawing a sword in the shogun’s castle was against the law, Asano was immediately arrested, put to death, and his Ako domain dissolved, forcing his retainers to become ‘masterless warriors’ [ronin]. After over a year of planning to avenge their lord’s death, forty-seven (some say only forty-six) of the ronin attacked and killed Kira. It is believed that the ronin hoped to avoid harsh punishment because their actions reflected loyalty to their lord. Many samurai believed that a samurai should not let an enemy’s offence go unanswered, especially an attack against one’s master. Ultimately, however, the ronin were forced to commit seppuku, ritual suicide by disembowelment. Why? Asano died because the shogunate executed him for disobeying the shogun’s law, he was not murdered by a rival. Thus the ronin’s actions were deemed unjustified.

Although the incident itself passed with little comment when it first occurred, audiences loved the dramatised versions retold through popular culture. First, the attack and mass ritualised suicide made for dramatic scenes. Second, these were lowly samurai acting in unison against the authorities, sacrificing themselves as a group, a theme that might have appealed to urban commoners who often interacted with low-ranking warriors. Seppuku as a part of samurai identity was an invention of the early modern period. It had occurred before the Tokugawa period, but it was fully institutionalised as capital punishment only in the Tokugawa period, and was meant to evoke a very martial, masculine form of punishment. Some dramatisations focused on individual ronin themselves and their romantic relationships, mixing the celebration of warrior values with stories popular among city dwellers.

Kabuki was not limited to cities. Rural plays featuring martial valour with large casts that involved youth associations, where everyone could be involved, were also popular in the countryside because they broke the monotony of everyday life.

Rural kabuki was not the only instance of commoner engagement with warrior culture. From rural elites who donned warrior identity, to martial art techniques used in village festivals, rural Japan became a site for appropriating and creating warrior culture. During the final decades of the Tokugawa period, some authorities looked to the countryside to rekindle samurai martial identity.

As civil war throughout Japan gradually settled, Hideyoshi and the early Tokugawa shoguns forced warriors into a choice: renounce their claims to warrior status and settle down as commoners in the countryside or keep their warrior status and relocate to a local castle town. Many former warriors who forfeited their warrior status still served as rural elites, becoming village headmen for example, and were called ‘rural samurai’ [goshi]. Some kept their weapons and passed them on to their descendants, but these were the exceptions rather than the rule; rural Japan was largely disarmed and urban samurai monopolised the means of violence. Long after warfare had subsided and the division between warriors and commoners had settled in the countryside, rural entrepreneurs sought to translate their economic successes into cultural prestige by petitioning local daimyo for permission to wear swords, a right typically reserved for warriors, and receive official recognition as ‘rural samurai’ regardless of their lineage. Daimyo might award these privileges to entrepreneurs who reclaimed new lands or developed local industry that contributed to the domain’s tax income. By carrying swords and earning titles, they argued, other peasants would respect them, making their service to the daimyo more efficient. Wearing the two swords was not enough for many would-be rural samurai; rural elites who wanted to connect to a warrior legacy, fictional or not, studied swordsmanship to embody the warrior past. As the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu noted, ‘The body believes in what it plays at: it weeps if it mimes grief. It does not represent what it performs, it does not memorise the past, it enacts the past, bringing it back to life. What is ‘learned by the body’ is not something that one has, like knowledge that can be brandished, but something that one is’. As with other arts, the realm of martial practice provided a space where a teacher’s social status mattered little when interacting with students. Networks across status lines increased during the latter half of the era when newly acquired wealth among rural elites fostered the pursuit of cultural activities such as writing poetry, studying nativism, or sponsoring local theatre. The social benefits accrued by forming connections through one activity could transfer to another. In one example of how social networks could lead to endless connections among commoners and warriors, a village headman from the Kantō region outside Edo studied nativism, through which he encountered a Confucian scholar, which led to an introduction to a gunnery instructor where he met other rural commoners who were also studying gunnery, and finally added spearmanship to his hobbies. Moreover, rural commoners did not passively receive these teachings as students, but taught swordsmanship to each other and to warriors. In fact, elite commoners and low-ranking warriors introduced fencing, a new trend in swordsmanship that began during the 18th century. While swordsmanship using wooden swords in two-person choreographed drills had existed since the 17th century, freestyle fencing with bamboo swords and protective armour was new.

Some warrior leaders within the Tokugawa shogunate looked to those rural swordsmen when reforming the overwhelmingly un-martial warrior status group. The Higuchi family, which still teaches Nen-ryu swordsmanship today, was famous for educating a wide range of students including daimyo, samurai, and fellow commoner elite men (and occasional women) in Edo and the surrounding countryside. Matsudaira Sadanobu, a prominent samurai official, was impressed with the headmaster of Nen-ryu, Higuchi Sadataka, who had demonstrated Nen-ryu in the shogun’s castle. Sadanobu gave him a scroll with the Chinese characters reading ‘phoenix’, which is still in the possession of the Higuchi family. The choice was significant. In Chinese folklore, the phoenix was said to appear with the rise of virtuous rule in society. In praising Sadataka, Sadanobu not only saw someone who had perfected himself through martial training, but held him up as an exemplar of moral superiority that could be possessed even by rural elites. Sadanobu threw himself into martial art training which influenced his political reforms, much like his grandfather Tokugawa Yoshimune who had also been a diligent martial arts practitioner. Sadanobu sought to reinvigorate samurai identity through the practice of martial arts, swordsmanship in particular, because they were, after all, warriors in name if not necessarily in deed. He even forced military exercises on his retainers, conducting hikes through the countryside. Swordsmanship, whether useful or not, compelled the samurai to embody their warrior heritage.

Some rural commoners studied martial arts to use in village cultural activities. There are examples of peasants who hired low ranking warriors to teach them weaponry to use specifically in rural festivals. In some villages, peasants performed stylised two-person drills to predict the weather, or engaged in choreographed matches to predict the future. Villagers organised their teachings into formalised styles [ryuha] complete with scrolls that imparted ‘secret teachings’ or designated rank and mastery. In Shizuoka prefecture, peasants practised the Heki-ryu Insai-ha style of archery for use in competitions and religious ceremonies. Archery teachers complained that some commoners studied the otherwise dignified warrior art of archery for rural gambling. In the second month of 1741, for example, villagers held a five-day archery contest to bring good crops and ward off harm. One samurai lamented in 1835 that commoners received rank in Heki-ryu, even though they were just meeting to bet on competitions. He felt that this would hurt the reputation of Heki-ryu, and respectable people would stop sending their children to study the art.

Rural swordsmen, unlike their urban counterparts, trained in martial arts not only for social inclusion or entertainment, but also for collective self-defence. Roaming samurai, gangs, and peasant uprisings increased throughout the 19th century. Typically, peasant uprisings are described as having rarely targeted individuals, their rage focusing, instead, on property. However, the nature of protests changed in the 19th century. Young men no longer followed the accepted forms of peasant protest in which harm against individuals and arson had been avoided. Groups of young men referred to as ‘evil bands’ began carrying weapons, stealing, committing arson, and attacking other peasants.

Violence was extended beyond the confines of protest, as the theme of revenge, present in much Tokugawa period popular culture, became reality among commoners. In the 19th century, the number of commoners who registered for revenge killings exceeded registrations by samurai. Murder, not surprisingly, was a crime in Tokugawa Japan, but under exceptional circumstances, namely, avenging the murder of one’s own father, could be considered a ‘legal’ act if the proper paperwork was submitted and accepted. These officially approved and registered ‘revenge killings’ became a reason to study swordsmanship. A peasant sent a letter to the headmaster of the Nen-ryu telling him of his long-cherished desire to study swordsmanship. He explained that ever since his father’s accidental death ten years earlier, he had been weak and timid and wanted to improve himself. The young peasant’s true intention was to kill his father’s murderer, a goal he accomplished after years of training in Nen-ryu.

Not all commoner participation in warrior identity creation was celebratory or flattering. The fantasy image of past heroic warriors found in art and theatre, and the masculine ideals embodied in sword practice hardly represented warrior reality. Like Sadanobu, other samurai and ex- samurai writers complained about samurai degeneration. For example, Buyo Inshi in his 1816 book Matters of the World: An Account of What I Have Seen and Heard, wrote that daimyo had no compassion for commoners suffering in their domains, and made no effort to keep people from falling into poverty. Middle-ranking samurai, meanwhile, did nothing to constrain their lavish spending and fell into debt, heaping even more suffering upon commoners from whom they demanded more loans. Comparing the samurai of his day to those of the past, Buyo wrote: ‘In past ages, it was common for warriors to mock those who pursue elegance as ‘courtiers’. Now, though, it is the better warriors who behave like courtiers; the majority have become like women’.

Hiraga Gennai, a true renaissance man who was a teacher, writer, and inventor, mocked samurai in his 1771 satirical essay titled On Farting. The essay tells of a performer who excels at farting, and in so doing, critiques the artistic and intellectual trends of his day. One character, a country bumpkin samurai named Crankshaw Stonington, Esquire, admonishes the ‘fartist’ and the crowd that gathers to hear the performance. The shogunate, he argued, only allowed public performances in order to teach the public about fealty and loyalty, citing the Treasury of Loyalty Retainers as an example. ‘Flatulence’, he added, ‘is, after all, a personal matter and should not be aired in public. Any proper samurai would be mortified to the point of suicide if he were inadvertently to let, uh, fly in polite company’. Gennai’s work demonstrates that kabuki was a vehicle for spreading samurai values. Yet Crankshaw plays the part of the straight man in this comedy; Gennai uses him to make fun of a popular kabuki play meant to promote samurai-approved moral lessons. He also directly attacks the notion of samurai honour – even a harmless fart could push a samurai to commit suicide rather than risk public shame.

Artists also criticised samurai ideals. Katsushika Hokusai, famous in the West for his woodblock print often known as the Great Wave, created a book of prints that depicted everyday life, especially the various positions of the body, including the practice of martial arts.

Inside the book is a print titled Privy, which shows a mid or high-ranking samurai using the toilet while his warrior retainers stand dutifully close by. Despite the obvious stench, the retainers refuse to back off. The image highlights the limitations of loyalty and obligation in samurai reality.

What was the official reaction to these iterations of warrior culture by commoners? Nobody could talk directly about current events using names of warriors, but censors probably overlooked kabuki plays and woodblock prints that used the pre-Tokugawa past to comment on the present. There were edicts forbidding commoners from practising any form of martial art. Yet samurai shogunate representatives in the countryside began to depend upon rural elite commoners who used swordsmanship practice as a network to build local militias. When the shogunate advised daimyo to reform their militias in response to the increased Western presence in East Asian seas, some hired commoner sword teachers who specialised in fencing, believing that this was more practical for military training than the older forms of swordsmanship dominated by samurai.

Criticism of warriors, their ideals, and the shogunate itself, such as those found in Hokusai’s Privy or Gennai’s On Farting, did not threaten warrior society. In fact, I would argue the opposite: the real threat to warrior domination could be found in the commoner celebration of samurai values. Over-identification with samurai ideals by those who had the most to gain and the least to lose, namely, disaffected low-ranking samurai and the occasionally inspired elite commoner, represented the true threat – it exposed the antagonism, the gap, between the idealised, fantasy image of the samurai, and the day-to-day reality. Those young men led the movement to overthrow the Tokugawa shogunate in the name of loyalty to the Meiji emperor, thus ending the Tokugawa Period. The final bukan ever published stated it simply: ‘This is the last one’.

This essay originally appeared under the title The Invention of the Samurai in Early Modern Japan, in Japan’s Past and Present, Bokförlaget Stolpe, in collaboration with Axel and Margaret Ax:son Johnson Foundation, 2020.


Michael Wert