How to kill yourself with honour – a Review of Samurai: the Japanese Warrior’s Manual by Stephen Turnbull

In this light hearted and highly entertaining all-purpose guide, the humble reader is educated by its ‘author’ Umawatari Bogyu in bushido, the Way of the Warrior.

From teaching you how to properly conduct a tea ceremony, what to do with the cut-off heads of your enemies, and whether or not you should kill annoying Christians, this book is essential for all budding samurai. Plus, the entire thing is full of amusing illustrations and diagrams.

To give a brief introduction: Samurai were essentially the male members of Japan’s noble fighting class. They would be trained in all manners of combat so as best to serve their lords (daimyo), and thus the emporer and his right hand man, the shogun (who would do most of the ruling for him). They were a formidable presence for well over a thousand years until *sob* their inevitable decline with the industrialisation of the country.

Obviously the passage of time has hugely romanticised the samurai, and it is immature of me to be harbouring secret desires to be one and blah blah blah…but no. They were supremely badass. End of. I mean, look at the armour for goodness sakes!

The infamously terrifying face masks were infact a development on a simple surface for tying your helmet on. Soon the idea came of developing the surface into an entire mask, with the aim of scaring the enemy away.

Honour was hugely important in samurai culture, and was a feature in pretty much everything they did – even when it no longer made complete sense from a western perspective.

For example, they scorned the full metal suits of armour used by European counterparts, because it was far more impressive to have arrows left embedded in your armour. Plus, as the author of the book notes, how on earth are you supposed to commit suicide if the only hole in your armour is the codpiece? Awkwarrrrd!

Another example: samurai of the early modern period were forced to move with the times and the development of fire arms, but most considered these to be incredibly vulgar and cowardly. The idea that a common peasant on the ground would be able to kill a noble on horseback simply by loading and firing a rifle was extremely undignified and entirely dishonourable. It rendered the swords and bows and years of training of the samurai obselete. 

Though some samurai began to accept these modern inventions, tragically, the rise of the firearm would eventually sound the death knell for their kind.

All samurai were expected to be extremely accomplished in unarmed combat, using their swords (the katana and wakizashi), as well as able to fire arrows and wield a spear (yari) while galloping on horseback. There were other options, though: here’s a weapon I’d never heard about before, the glaive (naginata). This was a spear with a curved blade which required a lot of skill to use, and was used for slashing down peasants/infantry from the back of your horse.

I’d just like to give a quick shout out here to the scourge of the samurai… the ninja.

These wily assassins have had, if anything, a greater impact on modern popular culture than their more noble enemies. But who cares – we all know what class of citizen could beat any number of ninjas in a fight.

Then of course they’d ALL get pwned by this guy:

At this point it becomes embarrassingly apparent how much of a nerd I am…

The samurai (as I’m sure you’re well aware from all of the ritual suicide) were pretty big on death. Here’s a cheerful piece of advice for the budding warrior:

The Way of the Samurai is found in death. – Nabeshima Tsunetomo

And another one:

Having been born into the house of the warrior, one’s intentions should be to grasp the long and short sword and die. – Kato Kiyomasa

Oh, goody.

Speaking of death…let’s talk about suicide.

The samurai were big fans of ritual suicide (whoopee). Suicide would normally be commited when denied the honour of dying in battle, to prevent dishonour in the case of defeat. Sometimes suicide would be to prevent personal disgrace, or it could even be a form of protest. One samurai in the service of Oda Nobunga was so despairing of his master’s love of hedonism that he killed himself to make the point. It worked and Nobunga changed his ways. I’m sure that brought his warrior comfort as he lay dying!

Contrary to popular belief, loyal samurai were not supposed to top themselves after their lord had died. I mean, that would just be wasteful! (Unlike all the other suicides, of course.)

‘Seppuku’ refers explicitly to the common method of disembowlment, but don’t worry, there are loads of more interesting ways of killing yourself to choose from. Drowning yourself, beheading yourself with your own sword (now that takes skill), running into a hail of arrows…

…running into a hail of bullets…

…or, my personal favourite, jumping off the roof of your castle with your sword in your mouth.

Unfortunately, the technique of falling on your sword comes with significantly less honour, as this is the technique that was employed by the female defenders of a castle in 1577. Oh, I see how it is.

 

How to bring yourself a whole load of honour though, is to compose death poetry, while you are bleeding…to death. A majorly awesome example of this is the samurai Aketsi Mitsuyoshi, who disembowled himself and then composed death poetry on the door of the temple in his own blood. Boo ya!

Now we get to the most important question. Could I have learnt to be a samurai?

The answer, unsurprisingly, is no. Women weren’t allowed.

 

But that didn’t stop a whole load of women from trying, and some with a lot of success, The Empress Jingu and Tomoe Gozen being among the most famous. You go, sisters!

Now all I have to do is get my hands on a flux capacitor and a whole load of plutonium, go back in time, and join them. In the meantime I heartily recommend this book to anyone with even a passing interest in samurai.

😉

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