Getting to Know Samurai

When you hear the word “Samurai”, what kind of person do you imagine? Are they a person from history or a character from a Japanese anime/manga/comic book, an American cartoon, a video game, a Japanese movie, or a Hollywood one (Tom Cruise or Keanu Reeves)?

In writing my book, I found there are many different conceptions of what a samurai actually is, ideas which have evolved over time to fit our values or the types of entertainment we enjoy (at the expense of being less historically accurate).

My own historically inaccurate view was shaped mostly by portrayals of a specific type of Rōnin (浪人 or 牢人), inadequately translated as “wanderers” or “vagabonds” since it needs political context. The ones shown in most films and shows I’ve seen are former Samurai who no longer have a master. From a modern or Western context, we might think of this as cool, heroic, and desirable: a lone warrior following his own code of morals after escaping from some form of authority. Many Star Wars characters (inspired by Samurai films) fit this category. For Japanese people, historically this status was something that could be considered undesirable or shameful. Some Rōnin were vagrants, mercenaries, bullies, or thieves. Others were political activists engaged in large-scale attacks and assassinations (see Shishi). Not all of them were former Samurai as well, as Today, the term “rōnin” has its own special connotation, based on education and employment systems utilized in in Japan. If you’ve failed to pass an exam to gain entrance to a particular high school, university, large company, law firm, etc., and you’re studying or working towards next year’s exam, you could be considered a rōnin. So we can already see large gaps between interpretations across time and country.

Here are some interesting points I learned during the production of my book from my friend, Shuhei Ogawa:

“For Japanese people, many of us are sensitive to how Samurai are portrayed in the media because they really existed up until 150 years ago. We’ve seen actual photos and videos and statues, so we know how they looked and how their appearances were regulated. There was no freedom of choice like modern times for hairstyle or clothing or job, even the materials used for fabric of their clothes or the type of grain they could eat was chosen for them. We still follow the rules for how to wear traditional Kimonos, how to tie an obi (belt), how to walk in the room showing proper manners, etc., even hiring specialists to wear them. So Samurai culture still exists in our daily life in a way. There is an annual year-long historical TV series called Taiga drama, which is very costly to produce because they put so much effort into historical accuracy of the clothing, architecture, and spoken languages. I see a lot of Japanese people starting to love historical Samurai dramas (not just Taiga dramas), and more historically accurate pieces are more respected and appreciated.”

“I think a lot of non-Japanese people think Samurai are Japanese ancient warriors who fight with swords. Or that they are people who follow the philosophy of  Bushido. Those are part of their features, but for Japanese people, Samurai is the actual title and occupation in the class system of the strict feudal society and there are very strict hierarchies in each class. It was almost impossible to become a Samurai if they weren’t born in a Samurai family and the title is given by their Daimyō (master).”

During the Edo period, Samurai were ranked fifth in terms of class hierarchy, one level below the Daimyō (feudal lords) and one level above peasants.

Inazo Nitobe, who wrote the book “Bushido”, was a Japanese Christian educator and politician (not a Samurai) wrote the book in English to explain what is the moral sense of Japanese people to western people, during a time when there were no more Samurai in Japan. So zero Samurai know about that book, and they never learnt Bushido in that way. So I think the definition of Bushido is also different between Japanese and non-Japanese people.” (The book has been criticized as portraying the samurai in terms of Western chivalry which had different interpretations compared to the pre-Meiji period bushido as a system of warrior values that were focused on valor rather than morals. -Wikipedia)

Shuhei and I both share a love of the manga that became an anime that became a series of 5 live action films: Rurouni Kenshin. We grew up with them and it impacted the choices we made to became the adults we are now. The 4th film was released in Japan in April 2021, and Shuhei had the opportunity to work on its visual effects. The 5th was released on June 4th, 2021. The series has been praised both inside and outside of Japan as one of the few successful live action adaptations of an anime. It’s a rare example of real historical events and people being blended with fictional characters and stories into a well-received result. The costumes are historically inaccurate, but audiences are willing to overlook this because they look worn and lived in by the characters. By adding realism to fiction, the hope is that audiences will be more easily swept away by the story, and it seems to be true in this case.

We live in strange times where people seem to care a lot about historical accuracy, yet are also losing interest in history. The Hollywood film 47 Ronin (a box office flop that was loosely based on history) is somehow getting a vaguely connected sequel set in the future. If you’re looking to learn more about the history of real Samurai, then you probably can guess that my children’s book won’t help you, simply from the title. But Sleepy Baby Samurai and the Magic Painting might appeal to you if you’re looking for a sweet and magical story about a Japanese Mother and her devoted son: a boy who shows skill and bravery when facing danger and the unknown. My team and I tried hard to be culturally accurate and respectful (which included significantly changing the costume design of one character based on Shuhei’s advice). I hope our story inspires more people to seek out quality resources for learning about Japanese history, culture, art, literature, and cinema through their local library and beyond!