Much of Japan’s early culture was imported via Korea from the great civilisation of the Tang dynasty of China (AD 608-907). Chinese characters, which are the basis of written Japanese, and a great deal of the social structure were imported.
All the armour and weaponry associated with the medieval Samurai have their origins on mainland Asia at this time.
The ancient Japanese warrior class is known as Samurai or bushi. The samurai had rights and privileges, but also obligations – including the requirement to fight for and give complete loyalty to their feudal master. From when Minamoto Yorimoto was named Shogun in 1192, to the restoration of the Meiji Emperor in 1867, the samurai class effectively ruled Japan. The lesser samurai owed allegiance to their feudal lords or daimyo (‘great names’) who formed the land-holding aristocracy.
Bushidō meaning “Way of the Warrior-Knight” is a Japanese word which is used to describe a uniquely Japanese code of conduct and a way of the samurai life, loosely analogous to the concept of chivalry. It originates from the samurai moral code and stresses frugality, loyalty, martial arts mastery, and honor unto death. Created in the 9th to 12 centauries Bushido was also influenced by Shinto and Buddhism, allowing the violent existence of the samurai to be tempered by wisdom and serenity.
The Japanese Sword
The Japanese sword is unique in the world in its cultural status. It is one of the divine objects of the Shinto religion, incorporating air, earth, fire, and water in its production.
It acquired a shape and method of construction around AD 1000 that later swordsmiths were unable to improve upon. The longsword became a symbol of rank for the military class. Famous artists were employed to design the sword’s fittings and the most skilled craftsmen would translate these designs in to metal.
Historical swords and armours are much more highly regarded in Japan than elsewhere because of the Shinto association of these objects with the spirits of the dead.
The Japanese Bow
The primary weapon of the samurai was not actually the sword, but rather the bow or yumi. The shape of the yumi is peculiar in that it is asymmetrical. There are a number of theories as to why this is, but in truth no one really knows. One theory is that the Japanese, famed for their horse archery, didn’t want to accidentally tap their horse with the bow and send them in the wrong direction. A second theory is that the yumi would be easier to shoot from a kneeling position, with the stave being shorter below than above.
The samurai took great joy in displaying their mastery of the yumi, and enemies and allies alike had great respect for masters of the bow.
A gift to King James I of England, VI of Scotland.
Dates from 1570 | Object number: XXVIA.1